Billy Hamilton could give Giants huge edge with new rule this season

Billy Hamilton could give Giants huge edge with new rule this season

The Giants made waves the day before FanFest when they brought Hunter Pence back on a one-year contract, delighting the fan base and filling a hole in left field. But as they get set to embark on an unprecedented season, their most impactful addition might end up being another veteran outfielder who quietly joined the club in the midst of Pence mania. 

Billy Hamilton signed a minor league deal with the Giants and was in a pretty solid position when camp ended. He now looms as a potential game-changer because of a new rule MLB is instituting over 60 games. 

Extra innings will begin with a runner on second base, making Hamilton, one of the fastest players in MLB history, a hell of a chess piece for a manager who intends to grab every single edge as the Giants aim to surprise the rest of the league. Asked about Hamilton during this week's Giants Insider Podcast, Kapler smiled and admitted he had been talking to general manager Scott Harris about the player just a few minutes earlier. 

"He's a perfect piece for that moment," Kapler said. "One of the things (Harris) brought up is how nice would it be to have Billy Hamilton run out there at second base and try to steal third base with a stolen base rate in the past of like 85 percent. He's been really successful at it and Scott brought that point up to me.

"It makes that roster spot more important. It makes having a dynamic player like Billy more important to have on a roster and it's just kind of exciting to be able to have that as an option in those situations."

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Hamilton, 29, has four 50-steal seasons in the big leagues, although he had just 22 last season because on-base percentage woes limited his playing time with the Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves. He has been extremely successful when trying to swipe third, as the Giants have found over and over again -- while with the Cincinnati Reds, Hamilton was particularly cruel to Tim Lincecum.

Hamilton is 73 for 84 when attempting to steal third, a success rate of 86.9 percent. Most of those came against starting pitchers, too, who generally are more aware of the running game than relievers.

The new rule is being put in place to make sure there are no marathon games during a sprint of a season. It has been part of minor league ball the last two seasons, and after initial grumbling, most at those levels have gotten used to it. Under the rule, each inning starting with the 10th will begin with a runner on second base. He is the player who hits in front of the leadoff hitter in that inning, so if the No. 4 hitter is due up in the 11th, the No. 3 hitter goes to second. 

You can replace that player with a pinch-runner, which is where Hamilton could become so valuable. Say Buster Posey is hitting third and Alex Dickerson is fourth, and the bottom of the ninth ends with Posey grounding out. The Giants can start the 10th by placing Hamilton on second for Dickerson, knowing Posey's spot wasn't going to come up for a couple innings anyway, and that they've dramatically increased their odds of getting that runner home.

While Hamilton is a serious threat to steal third, he also would score on just about any single (he was on second for 12 singles last year and scored 11 times), and if the Giants get him to third with one out, there aren't many fly balls or slow rollers that wouldn't bring him home. 

This might seem like a very small advantage, but over 60 games every edge will matter, and the Giants tend to play more extra-inning games than most, especially at Oracle Park. They played them about 10 percent of the time last year, going an MLB-best 13-3. 

[RELATED: How many games ZiPS projects Giants to win in short season]

Hamilton isn't the only edge Kapler might have in an unprecedented situation. His staff includes several coaches who were recently in the minors and he said he already has talked to those guys about their experiences with the new rule. 

"When we dug into it, what they thought was happening wasn't necessarily happening," he said. "A lot of conversations have been around whether to bunt somebody over from second to third, whether to attempt to steal, or whether to play it straight up."

Kapler paused as he thought of what had been discussed.

"The reason I'm being a little cautious here," he said, "is I don't want to give away strategy."

MLB has new safety protocols, but there's only so much two key Giants can do

MLB has new safety protocols, but there's only so much two key Giants can do

To help keep players, coaches and umpires safe, MLB has eliminated the pre-game exchange of lineup cards and instituted new rules regarding how close players can get on the field. The operations manual asks that players stand at least six feet apart during the anthem every night and discourages pre-game fraternization with members of the opposing team. 

The manual includes two full pages of bulleted on-field protocols, including one that says "Players, umpires, and other on-field personnel should practice physical distancing to the extent possible within the limitations of competition and the fundamentals of baseball."

When people around the game started examining the new rules, though, one thing became crystal clear. There are parts of every game that you can't regulate, particularly at the plate and first base. 

You can ask players to do all they can to socially distance, but there's no getting around the fact that every night at least 18 of them will dig into the box, many at the back it because of hitting preferences, with two catchers in the crouch, breathing heavily as they go through a game. Behind the catchers there still will be an umpire, and they tend to lean on shoulders and get as close as possible to get a better view of the pitch.

"I've definitely thought about that," catcher Buster Posey said. "I don't know if umpires will have to wear masks or not. I think that would be one thing that would help, but obviously you can't expect the batter to come up and wear a mask or a catcher to wear a mask (under his catcher's mask) during a game."

The current version of the new rulebook does not ask that umpires wear masks as they stand behind the catcher, although it does encourage distancing when possible and demands that they complete COVID-19 education before the season and during.

Posey will be at the greatest risk of exposure on a nightly basis, with Brandon Belt also sticking out from most regular fielders, and not just because the first baseman is the endpoint of so many plays (last year Belt caught more than 1,000 outs at first). When opposing runners reach first, Belt will have to hold them close, often swiping down on throws over to first. 

"Obviously we're going to be pretty close over there," he said. "I'll try not to get in anybody's face anyway. I think I can do the same thing I've always done. Obviously we're going to be close but I'll do my best to stay as far away from them as possible while still being able to play my position. There's probably going to be a little less talking over there for me, which I probably shouldn't be doing anyway. Avoiding face-to-face talking will help go a long way."

While Posey expressed serious reservations about playing this season, Belt, in his first interview since March, said he's optimistic about the season. 

Belt has spent the hiatus back home in Nacogdoches, Texas, but he said his county wasn't a hot spot in recent weeks like the rest of the state, which was slow to react to COVID-19. Belt said he has spoken to doctors "quite a bit" about the risks and will continue to take precautions. 

The Giants are doing the right things during training sessions and continue to mold their plans for the season. But when the games start and wins and losses are on the line, there's only so much that can be done to parts of the game that have been around for a century. The first few actual games later this month will give them a better idea of how to handle nine innings. 

[RELATED: Giants add four to player pool]

"The landscape is going to continually change and we're going to have to adjust and modify how we do things," Posey said. "That's just the reality of the world we're living in right now."

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Mike Yastrzemski believes MLB season will feel like September every game

Mike Yastrzemski believes MLB season will feel like September every game

Mike Yastrzemski knows the Giants can't wait around to find their groove. How they start the 60-game season can make or break their year. 

The season is set the begin July 23, what usually is more of a middle point for baseball. Throw that out the window. For Yastrzemski and the Giants, every day is going to feel more like September. Every game matters in this sprint, it's simple as that.

"It's kind of like September baseball all the way around," Yastrzemski said Thursday on 95.7 The Game's "Damon, Ratto & Kolsky" show. "We were in a really good chance in August and September to play really meaningful games. I think we have a good core group that's kind of used to that."

This roster certainly looks different than those of the Giants' World Series teams, but veterans like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval will look to lead the way. They do have that experience, even though San Francisco hasn't seen the playoffs since 2016. 

Yastrzemski believes the Giants have another advantage of experience, one that dates back even further. 

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"We have a ton of guys who went to college," Yastrzemski said. "Even though we have guys who might have been out of college for a while, we all know what it's like to play a 58-game season. I think having that experience is going to be really beneficial.

"You're gonna kind of lean on your past experiences and try and get an advantage like that."

The Giants' projected starting lineup, which will change nearly every game, does feature plenty of players who played in college, including Yastrzemski. What this team really needs more than anything, is another impressive season from none other than Yaz himself. 

[RELATED: Why Krukow believes 2020 Giants have 'golden opportunity']

Finally making his MLB debut at 28 years old last season, Yastrzemski hit .272 with 21 homers in just 107 games. He feels like every game will be like September, and that should make Giants fans happy, too. Yastrzemski hit .292 with three homers in September last season, and certainly expects even better this year.

The Giants expect to shock many this season, and they'll need players like Yastrzemski to start off hot if they're to do so.