Giants Review: Pablo Sandoval embraced utility role before getting hurt

Giants Review: Pablo Sandoval embraced utility role before getting hurt

SAN FRANCISCO — On a Friday afternoon in mid-September, Pablo Sandoval walked into Bruce Bochy’s office, a bat resting on his shoulder. The Giants had lost 11 straight.

“Bochy!” Sandoval yelled. “We’re going to win tonight.”

With that, the injured utility man turned and headed towards the field, his voice bouncing off the walls as he pushed through the double doors of the clubhouse. Bochy smiled. 

“We miss him,” he said, sighing. 

Sandoval is apparently a pretty good prognosticator. The Giants did win that night, beating the Rockies 2-0. But what Bochy really needed was the energy he showed in that moment. For two and a half seasons, this has been a somewhat lifeless group, but Sandoval remains a boisterous bundle of energy. The Giants are happy to have him back, and while his 2018 season ended prematurely, the Panda once again provided some highlights. 

What Went Right: Sandoval does not look the part of a super-utility player, but when he showed up in camp, he worked hard to break in a small army of gloves. He ended up starting 29 games at third base, 20 at first, and two at second, where he saw real action for the first time in his career. Sandoval did well enough at second that the Giants may continue to consider that option given how much shifting they do. He caught bullpen sessions to prepare for life as the emergency catcher, and, of course, he ended up getting on the mound. 

On April 28, with the Giants getting blasted during the first game of a doubleheader against the Dodgers, Sandoval became the first Giants position player to take the mound since Greg Litton in 1991. He needed just 11 pitches to complete a tidy 1-2-3 inning, showing a clean delivery, 88 mph fastball, and shockingly tight curve. 

At the plate, Sandoval had a .248/.310/.417 slash line, hit nine homers and drove in 40 runs in 230 at-bats,. He was a good situational hitter, batting .286 as a pinch-hitter and .323 with runners in scoring position. 

What Went Wrong: Sandoval is much better at the plate than he was in Boston, but he still is not really the kind of hitter you would throw out there every day. He had an OPS+ of 99, which was his highest in four years, but still made him roughly a league-average hitter. Against left-handed pitching, he batted .145 with three extra-base hits. 

Defensively, while he handled multiple spots, Sandoval wasn't all that good at third, according to the metrics. He was worth negative-four Defensive Runs Saved. 

Sandoval has struggled to stay healthy in recent years, and he was shocked when a hamstring strain ended up being so severe that he needed season-ending surgery, missing the season’s final two months. That cost Sandoval a shot at a pretty cool moment. Bochy was planning to let him play all nine positions in one game, and given how bad the Giants were in September, that surely would have ended up happening. 

Contract Status: Sandoval is entering the final year of a five-year, $95 million deal he signed after the 2014 World Series. The Red Sox are on the hook for nearly all of it, so the Giants will pay Sandoval just the MLB minimum ($545,000) next season. 

The Future: Sandoval burned a lot of bridges when he left in 2014, but he appeared to take the final step back towards “fan favorite” status when he pitched his inning. Assuming he’s healthy, he’s a lock for the Opening Day roster. The only intrigue may be his role. Will Bochy continue using him at second base? Could he regularly give the bullpen a breather? Stay tuned.

Why Giants brought in umpires for second round of bullpen sessions

Why Giants brought in umpires for second round of bullpen sessions

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Andrew Suarez kicked at the dirt on the bullpen mound Saturday and looked in at his catcher, most of what he saw was similar to every other bullpen session of his life. There was one key difference, though: An umpire in full uniform crouched behind the catcher.

Suarez fired a fastball and the umpire emphatically pointed a finger to his left, signaling a strike. 

"It was different, but I liked it," Suarez said. "You get a good feel for the plate."

The Giants have made a lot of subtle changes to drills under manager Gabe Kapler and a 13-person coaching staff. Pitchers fielded pop-ups Sunday, an extreme rarity in a sport where the default move for a pitcher is to get out of the way and let an infielder take over. The outfield drills more closely resemble the NFL combine, with cones meticulously set up and coaches focusing on change-of-direction. But the biggest difference through a week of camp has been the addition of three real professional umpires to bullpen sessions.

The Giants brought the umpires, who live locally, in for their second round of bullpen sessions. They have four mounds going at a time and pitchers could opt out if they preferred to just throw to a catcher, but they seemed to enjoy the extra touch of intensity. Kapler said it was something he did in Philadelphia. 

"The concept obviously is to try to create heightened awareness and add a little competition to it," Kapler said.

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When Andrew Bailey met with coaches earlier this month, one thing the new pitching coach preached was making sure every pitch of every bullpen session had a purpose. The Giants record every session and pitchers can stop to watch video or get the spin rate or velocity on a previous pitch. The hope was that the addition of umpires would ramp up the intensity a bit, but Kapler said it wasn't just designed for pitchers. 

"The catchers are getting some feedback," Kapler said. "The bullpen sessions are as much for the catchers as they are for the pitchers, and you see how much attention and emphasis our catching coaches are putting on receiving. I think it's been good so far."

Why Austin Slater took grounders at shortstop during Giants' workout

Why Austin Slater took grounders at shortstop during Giants' workout

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Brandon Crawford took his turn, showing off his usual defensive skills while taking a set of grounders at shortstop on a back field at Scottsdale Stadium. Then came Maurico Dubon, and then Kean Wong and Austin Slater. 

Wait, Austin Slater? 

This is Camp Versatility, but even by that standard, it was a bit surprising to see Slater getting work in as a shortstop Friday morning. He then moved on to work at second base, and manager Gabe Kapler said Slater wasn't just having fun. He'll get reps at all four infield spots this spring, along with his usual work in the outfield. 

Slater, getting ready for his fourth big league season, is into it. But what exactly is his position right now?

"I'm a Right Handed Batter's Box," he said, laughing. 

The Giants, as you might have heard a time or two, are going all-in on platoons, and Slater could be a big part of that. He had a .838 OPS against left-handed pitchers last season and could be a nice counter to Alex Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski in the outfield and Brandon Belt at first base. 

But platoon life isn't just about the other day's starting pitcher. The Giants know they have a talent deficit. They hope to gain an edge by literally exploiting every platoon advantage they can over nine innings.

There could be times when Slater pinch-hits for Belt, or for Crawford, with a more natural shortstop like Mauricio Dubon sliding over to short and Slater getting a few innings at second base. 

"The mentality is let us over-prepare right now and see how the roster stacks up," Slater said. "I enjoy doing it."

Slater has 23 big league starts at first base but just a handful of innings at second and third. But he has nearly 900 minor league innings at second base and last year the Giants had him try third 11 times in Triple-A. He has always done extra infield work during batting practice, so this is just a natural extension for the 27-year-old. It could also be his best way onto the roster. 

It'll be an interesting spring for Slater defensively, but the real work will be done in the cages. He has more raw power than most on the roster but just nine homers in 544 plate appearances. 

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Slater made swing changes last offseason to try to increase his launch angle and is continuing to work on that this spring. He lit up when talking about the three new hitting coaches, saying they already have a good understanding of what he's trying to do.

The Giants can do all they want with defensive positioning to get Slater on the field more often, but they do need to see that pay off with more power production for the lineup. 

"I think we want to create the best possible path for Austin, so when he drives the ball he drives it in the air," Kapler said. "He definitely has raw power, dating back to his time at Stanford. We know about the pedigree and we just want to see that come out frequently in games."