Strickland looks back on year that was overshadowed by one pitch

harper-bryce-stirckland-punch.jpg
AP

Strickland looks back on year that was overshadowed by one pitch

SCOTTSDALE — There are 79 National League relievers who have thrown at least 100 innings since Hunter Strickland became a full-time big leaguer in 2015. When you sort them by ERA, you find the hard-throwing right-hander near the top. With a 2.75 ERA over his three full seasons, Strickland ranks ninth in the NL, ahead of All-Stars like Milwaukee’s Corey Knebel and San Diego’s Brad Hand, and budding Pirates star Felipe Rivero. 

By most measures, Strickland has been a reliable performer for a Giants bullpen that’s been a disaster for long stretches of the past couple of seasons. And yet, you won’t find another pitcher on staff who has his name thrown into more fake trades on social media or talk radio. It’s not hard to connect the dots. 

Just when it seemed fans had started to forget Strickland’s rough 2014 postseason, he threw a fastball at Bryce Harper’s hip and then exchanged blows in a fight that was one of the low points of a 98-loss season. Strickland knows what that did to his reputation. 

“It’s tough to go out there and have people not like you and to have this perception about you that you’re this hothead, because honestly I don’t feel like that,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as a hothead.”

In the clubhouse, Strickland is the opposite of the man most see on the mound. He is as soft-spoken and accessible as any Giant, but like most relievers, he has a switch. It just so happens that his occasionally goes to a more intense level, leading to a couple of high-profile confrontations with Harper and with the Royals in the 2014 postseason.

“Obviously between the lines we’re competitors, we’re going out there competing, and that’s our livelihood out there — that’s how we’re putting food on the table for our family, so we do take it personally,” Strickland said. “Granted I do make mistakes. You know, I’m human — I understand that, so I do regret putting my team in situations like last year.

“If I could go back and change certain things then I definitely would, because I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be a team player and the guy that everyone has confidence in and believes — whether it’s the fan base or my teammates — that when I’m going out there that I’m going to do it and play ball the right way and get the outs that I need to get.”

Strickland tried to move on quickly from the Harper fight, starting that afternoon, when he stood at his locker and waited for reporters to enter the clubhouse. The situation was prolonged by an unusually long appeals process, but on the field, Strickland had a short memory. In 47 appearances after the fight, he posted a 3.09 ERA. 

Strickland enters this season as the favorite to be Bruce Bochy’s go-to pitcher in the seventh inning, but he knows he has some things to clean up. Asked what his spring goal is, he immediately pointed to the need to find better weapons against left-handed hitters. They had a .876 OPS against him last season compared to a .587 OPS from right-handers. Strickland's goal is to get away from his fastball at times, as lefties often have an easy time picking it up out of his hand.

“You always need something soft to keep them honest,” Bochy said. “Whether it’s a changeup or splitter, which he can throw, or a breaking ball that he can throw to both sides of the plate.”

Regardless, Strickland’s success against right-handers will keep him in the late-innings mix, and the 29-year-old is eager to prove his worth after a season that was overshadowed by one moment. 

“You can’t change the past,” he said. “You can only move forward, and I know that I have a ways to go to earn the fan base’s trust, or certain people’s, things like that. I’ll do what it takes. You’ve got to to live with the consequences when you do something wrong, and I’m okay with that.”

Enthusiasm stands out as Giants hold first full squad workout

day_1_cutch.jpg
USATSI

Enthusiasm stands out as Giants hold first full squad workout

SCOTTSDALE — It was surprisingly cold and windy when the 2018 Giants finally took the field as a group, but that did nothing to quell the enthusiasm. As 60 players stretched in right field at Scottsdale Stadium, Hunter Pence and a couple others started a slow clap. Within 20 seconds, the entire team had joined in for a scene that looked straight out of a high school football movie. 

“There was a lot of energy today — there’s been a lot of energy and enthusiasm building since FanFest,” Pence said. “A couple of us were like, ‘It would be awesome to get a slow clap going.’ Boch had made a statement about everyone being committed, and everyone was committed to it.”

It remains to be seen if this team will be any good, but you can say this for the roster that took the field Monday morning: This is as fired-up as any group Bruce Bochy has had, with no hints of a hangover from a 98-loss season. The signs were everywhere. Brandon Crawford exchanged good-natured shots with Andrew McCutchen and Austin Jackson, two of the newcomers. Evan Longoria and Buster Posey had a long conversation after going through a base running drill. A healthy Brandon Belt smiled with teammates as he worked on his swing during pickoff drills. Gregor Blanco stood on the dugout steps and exchanged tips with new teammate Nick Hundley.

Bochy missed most of that action. He spent his morning on the back field, taking a close look at the minor leaguers in camp. He has few concerns about the group of veterans that gathered on the main field, but that doesn’t mean the first speech of camp was all positive. 

“We talked about some of the things we need to do, get better at, things to learn from,” he said. “We all took ownership in a tough year and we’re all going to take ownership in improving things.”

Part of Bochy’s message was that it’s time put last year in the rearview mirror, but that doesn’t mean the Giants are forgetting about what went wrong. There is an emphasis on doing the little things this spring, with baserunning being one aspect of the game that’s been mentioned often the first week. Coaches and players are also making it a point to improve the clubhouse culture. 

Bochy was so fed up at some point last season that he banned players from using their cell phones in the final hour before first pitch, but Pence noted that the atmosphere changed in September. It was then that players started a roundtable — filled with drinks and snacks — after wins, and the mood was noticeably lighter. 

“You felt it brewing at the end of last year,” he said. “Everyone was getting on board.”

That has carried over, with McCutchen, Longoria, Jackson and Tony Watson adding extra juice. 

“I feel like we’re at a really good state of being right now,” Pence said. “It’s a lot of fun just being here.”

--- The first hitting group consists of Pence, Posey, McCutchen and Longoria. That's 16 combined All-Star Game appearances. 

--- Worth noting, possibly: Pablo Sandoval's first day of the spring was spent doing drills at first base, not third. He'll back up both positions. 

--- As the Giants took the field, MLB released the new pace of play rules. They’re pretty mild. Here’s how the Giants will handle it, and what Cory Gearrin thinks of pitch clocks. 

--- The Watson deal became official in the afternoon, which was funny because he went through fielding drills a few hours earlier. Anyway, here’s his reaction to the deal, and the roster move to clear a spot. 

--- If you missed it last week, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence were the podcast guests. Another one is coming tomorrow, so subscribe here so it’s on your phone when you wake up. 

--- I posted a lot of photos from the workout on my Instagram page. If you’re itching for videos of the newcomers, check out the Instagram story. 

--- The quote of the day, from Pence, on having new hitting coaches: “It’s like looking at a chess board. Sometimes if you stand up or look at it from the side, you see a move that you didn’t see before.”

Watson arrives in Scottsdale as Giants DFA right-handed prospect

watson-giants-ap.jpg
AP

Watson arrives in Scottsdale as Giants DFA right-handed prospect

SCOTTSDALE — For all the talk about this slow free agent market, Tony Watson wasn’t too upset in recent weeks. The left-hander went to Game 7 of the World Series with the Dodgers and didn’t return home until the first week of November, so he was happy to have a few extra days with his wife and two kids. 

On Monday, Watson finally jogged onto a spring training field. He joined the Giants for their first full squad workout and later in the day the team officially announced a two-year deal that includes a player option for a third year. 

“Games start this week, so I’m right on time,” Watson said, smiling. 

To clear a 40-man spot for Watson, the Giants designated Joan Gregorio for assignment. The right-hander was once a good bet to pitch in the big leagues for the Giants, but he missed much of last season after testing positive for a banned substance, and he’s far down the depth chart at this point. 

Watson, on the other hand, shoots right to the top. With Will Smith out until about May 1 following Tommy John surgery, Watson will be Bruce Bochy’s primary lefty in the bullpen. He’ll pitch in the late innings, along with Mark Melancon, Sam Dyson and Hunter Strickland. 

“He’s used to pitching with the game on the line or late in the game,” Bochy said. “We’ll sit down with the relievers and establish roles, but it’s just nice to have the number of guys we have who are used to pitching late in the ballgame.”

Watson saved 10 games for the Pirates last season and he has 30 saves in his career, along with a 2.68 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. He has appeared in at least 70 games in each of the last four seasons, and if he keeps that up, he’ll easily hit incentives that could more than double the value of his contract. 

That kind of durability is usually rewarded early in the offseason, but Watson, a Scott Boras client, was patient as other relievers flew off the board. “I didn’t really know until the last couple of weeks that we would get some momentum with this thing,” he said. He arrived in Scottsdale on Sunday and passed a physical, locking the deal into place. 

The Giants figure to throw Watson right into the fire. They face the Dodgers on opening day, and Watson said he’s ready for the challenge provided by guys like Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager. The division is full of tough left-handed hitters, and Watson will be tasked with getting them out until Smith recovers. 

“You start looking around and then you add Eric Hosmer in San Diego, and it starts adding up,” he said. 

The Giants are hopeful the math is in their favor. Over the last three years, Watson has held lefties to a .599 OPS, but he’s no specialist. Right-handers have a .676 OPS against him during that time. That resume makes Watson the perfect fit as the last significant piece of an offseason overhaul, and he arrived in time to hear Bochy welcome newcomers to camp before Monday’s workout. 

As Watson looked around the room, he felt comfortable that he made the right decision. He insists this is a contender, noting that every time he faced the Giants last year he looked out and saw plenty of talent. 

“Just playing against them last year, it just didn’t seem like a 98-loss team,” he said. "You don’t take these guys lightly just because of their record. They’re still the same guys (as previous years). I don’t know what happened, I can’t speak to what happened (last year), but this wasn’t a 98-loss team.”