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Why Giants are so focused on running game in spring training

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Michael Conforto hit a fly ball to right last Wednesday and watched Bryce Johnson jog home from third for a run. When Conforto got back to the dugout at Scottsdale Stadium, there was a line of teammates and coaches waiting with high-fives for a productive plate appearance. He tried to deflect the attention elsewhere.

"He's like, 'That dude just laid down a bunt, stole second, stole third, and scored,' " manager Gabe Kapler said the next morning. " 'All I did was get the ball in the air.' "

Johnson's sequence, which started with a perfect bunt down the third base line, would have looked out of place for the Giants in recent seasons. It still might in 2023, but the game is changing, and the Giants know they have to change with it. 

They have 21 stolen bases in 25 attempts this spring, and Kapler talks often of players who are standouts going first-to-third or tagging up. It's one of the things he likes about Blake Sabol, who is one of the more athletic players the Giants have ever put in the squat. 

A lot of this is spring noise, but the Giants do expect to run more often, in part because they expect everyone to run more often. While the pitch clock gets most of the attention, Major League Baseball also made bases slightly larger -- from 15 square inches to 18, making that trip between bags slightly shorter -- and put in a limit on the number of times a pitcher can throw over. A third unsuccessful throw to first now will result in a balk.

 

"I think stolen bases will be up across the league," Kapler said, "And I think we will be more aggressive in stealing bases ourselves."

There are a couple of major caveats here, starting with the reality of the roster. 

It's nice that Sabol and Joey Bart run well for catchers, but it's not ideal that they're two of the faster players in the lineup. According to Baseball Savant, the Giants have just three projected regulars (Thairo Estrada, Austin Slater and Bart) who rate above the league average in sprint speed. Some of their slower players from last season (Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria, Tommy La Stella) are gone, but they still project to have one of the slowest rosters in the big leagues, if not the slowest. 

Johnson has a league-high seven stolen bases this spring but is not on the 40-man and almost certainly headed for Triple-A. The only other players with multiple steals are Slater and Heliot Ramos, who already has been optioned.

Slater, though, is an example of where the Giants might take a step forward this season. Kapler said he expects all players to be slightly more aggressive, but they're not going to send guys like Brandon Crawford and Wilmer Flores all the time just because the rules are more advantageous. Slater has 43 stolen bases in 47 career attempts and could push for his first 20-steal season if he stays healthy. Estrada swiped 21 bags last season and hopes to build off that.  

The Giants are somewhat limited by what they currently have on the roster, but there's little doubt they're hoping for a faster future. During one recent morning, all of the televisions in the clubhouse were showing bunt singles in a loop. Kapler said he's constantly reminding players like Johnson and prospect Grant McCray that their speed can be a game changer.

"I tell Grant McCray this every time he comes over here: You're a good baseball player, you have power, but you have this other gift that very few people in our organization have and that's the hand-eye coordination to put a bunt down, and you're as fast as almost anybody in our organization and have this base-stealing tool that can be like extra-base hit power for another player," Kapler said. "Another player has to rely on doubles and triples -- and of course Grant can do that, as well -- but the ability to bunt and steal a base is something that I think is going to get valued more and more."

It did not escape notice within the organization that the rival Los Angles Dodgers have tried to load up on athleticism even more than usual, with Steven Duggar and Bradley Zimmer among those they brought into camp. The Giants' best hopes can be seen on their top prospect list.

 

McCray stole 43 bases last season and should start this season in High-A. Vaun Brown was 44-for-50 and will begin the season with Double-A Richmond. The new rules might bring more upside for those players, and Kapler said the staff also will evaluate others -- like Johnson -- slightly differently because of the increased emphasis on speed and athleticism across the game. 

There soon will come a day when the Giants aren't so plodding, but for now, they're focused on the other part of all this. Sure, they'll run more, but it'll be more important for them to keep others from running all over them. Kapler brought up the young Arizona Diamondbacks as a team that might go wild with the new rules this year. The Giants have spent a lot of time this spring working on rundown drills and throwing to bases, hopeful they can limit faster teams itching to take off under the new rules, 

"I don't know if it's as simple as they're 4 1/2 inches closer and therefore all of those bang-bang plays, the baserunner is going to be safe," Kapler said. "I'm not sure it's that simple, but there might be a little bit to that. And I think teams are recognizing that and they also think the disengagements stuff can be a real deterrent."

The expectation is that the game will look a bit more old-school, with pickoffs brought back since pitchers can only throw to bases twice, and catchers getting more involved. The Giants have back-picked repeatedly this spring, with Bart being particularly aggressive in throwing behind runners who have taken big leads. In one recent game, Bart threw behind a runner early, and prospect Patrick Bailey tried to back-pick a runner on second base in the ninth inning. Kapler was thrilled. 

"You're not going to go look for leaderboards on back-picks, but we're definitely back-picking more than most," Kapler said. "We see controlling the running game being partially the pitcher's responsibility, partially the catcher's responsibility, and we have to look for new ways to control the running game because we feel like the running game is going to be more significant across the league."

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This might all be a net negative for the Giants. They expect to run more but they're still not a fast team, so unless they can do a better job of stopping others, they'll likely lose some more ground to younger teams like the Diamondbacks. The goal is to limit that, and take advantage when and where they can. The game will demand that in 2023.

"It's in line with what Major League Baseball is basically sharing with anybody who will listen," Kapler said. "Fans value action and value some of these little events and it happening faster. All of these new things that are happening in baseball are set up to create that outcome."

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