How Gabe Kapler plans to accentuate strengths of Giants' veteran lineup

How Gabe Kapler plans to accentuate strengths of Giants' veteran lineup

SAN FRANCISCO — The game of baseball has changed, but if you sit with most big leaguers, particularly those who have been around a few years, you’ll hear them talk of how important traditional statistics still are. 

Hitters often point to runs and RBI, not OPS+ or WAR, and pitchers still prefer ERA and, yes, wins, to xFIP or spin rates. During the final week of the season, Giants outfielder Kevin Pillar summed it up while discussing a low on-base percentage that may impact the decision to bring him back.

“(For) as long as this game has been played, scoring runs and driving in runs is an important statistic,” Pillar said. “Last time I checked, that's how you win games, if you score more runs than the other team."

Pillar likely will play for Gabe Kapler next year, and while Kapler’s introduction largely consisted of discussing off-field issues, he did give several examples of things he has learned as a manager and executive. Kapler didn’t mention many current Giants, but at one point, asked about the ballpark, he brought up Brandon Belt, which was interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, Belt is as likely as any longtime Giant to be traded before Kapler fills out his first lineup card. He has a limited no-trade clause, but it’ll be much more difficult for the new-look front office to deal other veterans if they truly want to shake it up. Belt still has plenty of fans in opposing front offices despite declining power numbers.

The second aspect was that Kapler was demonstrating how the new front office and staff might approach their evaluations of current Giants. 

"I've thought a lot about Brandon Belt and specifically what he brings -- how impressive it is to watch him take an at-bat, independent of the outcome of the at-bat. He tends to look over pitches and make really good swing-or-don't-swing decisions," Kapler said. "I know the power has dropped off a little bit but taking the things that he does very, very well and highlighting some of those things might lead to some more of that power production."

Kapler hit on what has always made Belt a polarizing player. His plate appearances are as controlled as anyone’s, and over the course of a game or series or season, there’s a lot of value in that. Every time Belt shakes his head at a pitch that was half an inch out of the zone, he’s adding to a starter’s workload and increasing his own odds of getting on base. 

Even in a disappointing season, Belt's .339 on-base percentage was the highest of any Giants regular. He ranked 15th in the National League by seeing 4.09 pitches per plate appearance, something Zaidi and Kapler's old clubs excel at. The Dodgers and Phillies ranked third and fourth in the NL, respectively, seeing 4.00 pitches per plate appearance. The Giants were ninth at 3.89. In 2018, Kapler's first year, the Phillies finished behind only the league-leading Dodgers, while the Giants ranked ninth in the league. 

[RELATED: Watch Kapler laugh at Belt for trying to bunt]

The ability to have consistently good plate appearances is something that was a focus throughout the organization in Zaidi's first year, and Kapler sure seems to be a fan. If the new staff can get some more power out of Belt, great, but if not, they still plan to focus on his strengths as a hitter. 

Kapler said that will be an emphasis with all of his players and the minor leaguers who come up. The Giants still lack in overall talent, but they believe there are ways to squeeze more juice out of this roster, regardless of what the ballpark's dimensions might do to hitters. 

"It's about instilling confidence in players for the things they do really well, and then reminding them how those positive steps forward can play in the environment that they play in specifically here in San Francisco," Kapler said.

Giants' Jeff Samardzija hopes to carry heavy workload in short season

Giants' Jeff Samardzija hopes to carry heavy workload in short season

For months, Giants starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija tried to simulate the workload of a normal baseball day. Without games at night, that meant adding hikes to his schedule in the mornings, throwing as much cardio as possible on top of normal throwing and lifting sessions. Samardzija was in the Phoenix area until flying to San Francisco two weeks ago, and on a Zoom call with reporters early in camp, he smiled when asked where he would find those morning hikes. 

"My baseball career has allowed me to have a nice house of elevation, if you will," Samardzija said. "There are plenty of hills and mountains to walk. I just go out my front door and just go up. You keep hiking until you get tired. Usually when you get to that ghost house that's at the top of my subdivision that nobody lives at and hasn't lived at in 20 years, it's about time to turn around and head back."

Those treks up the hill were supplemented with two more traditional baseball training methods. Samardzija would meet up with Trevor Cahill, Tyler Anderson and Drew Smyly three times a week to throw in a park, and when the Scottsdale Stadium fields opened up to local players in May, the veterans were there five days a week. Samardzija continued to do the tedious daily shoulder lifts and stretches that helped him move past an injury-riddled 2018 season, and he stayed sharp by facing Hunter Pence, who rented a house in Scottsdale during the hiatus, in live BP sessions. 

"I faced Hunter a lot this quarantine," Samardzija said. "Take what you want from that. Hunter is a lot of fun to face, but he's super positive, so you don't ever really think you did anything bad."

Samardzija is getting better feedback now that he's back at Oracle Park. He has pitched in intrasquad games with the coaching staff and front office watching and tracking every pitch, and he's likely to face the A's in one of two exhibitions the Giants have set up for early next week. Then, it's an opening weekend date with the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

When you listen to Gabe Kapler talk about this ramp-up, you picture Samardzija throwing three innings at Dodger Stadium and turning the ball over to the bullpen. But when you listen to Samardzija, you realize that he's not anticipating any early pitch counts or caution.

"I think that's the problem we're at right now with the game when it comes to pitching," he said. "It's just got to be individual guys on an individual basis. How did they look in their bullpens? How did they look in their live BPs and in a given game? 

"It's got to be an individual basis. To lump everyone into one category is wrong, and I know that's what's happening (in the game). It's just going to be all hands on deck and give us what you can."

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

For Samardzija, this is a familiar conversation. When he reported to camp last spring the talk was about how the Giants would ask for quality from him, not quantity. Early on, with Samardzija coming off a 2018 season wrecked by shoulder issues, he was quite often limited to five innings by Bruce Bochy. But by the end of the year Samardzija's game log more closely resembled past seasons, and he ended up throwing 181 1/3 innings. 

In that sense, history is on Samardzija's side. He genuinely does not care for most stats, but it's important to him that he carries the load expected of a starter, and you can bet that'll be an ongoing conversation with the staff. The Giants want to be careful with their veterans, but Samardzija is confident he'll be built up by his first start. 

"I personally think that if things go as planned with the way we've been building up, to be at 75-85 pitches to start the season is not a stretch," he said. 

With nine days remaining until the opener, the starting pitchers aren't yet close. Samardzija and Kevin Gausman pitched two innings apiece in a camp game on Sunday. Drew Smyly completed three. 

Kapler has said the staff is airing on the side of caution, noting research that shows a slow ramp-up for pitchers helps keep them healthier. He will lean on communication over the coming week, though, and perhaps Samardzija will have some sway there. 

"Nobody knows themselves better than Jeff Samardzija," Kapler said after the right-hander's most recent outing. 

[RELATED: Posey's leadership will be missed but won't be forgotten]

There's a lot at stake for Samardzija, and for his fellow starters. Gausman and Smyly also will be free agents at the end of the year, and all would be well served by showing durability during this strange year. 

That always has been Samardzija's calling card, and perhaps the Giants should take his public statements seriously as they try to play through a pandemic. As veterans continue to opt out and stars express concern about what MLB is trying to do, Samardzija has spoken forcefully about his commitment to this 60-game season. 

He checked into camp and said he's eager to carry a heavy load, no matter how many safety measures he has to jump through every day just to get on the mound. 

"We need to make sacrifices this year," he said. "It's going to be a big word this year. We have a job to do. They're paying us to do our job, that we fought for to be fully paid, and to go out there and do our job."

Gabe Kapler breaks down three Giants catchers vying for starting job

Gabe Kapler breaks down three Giants catchers vying for starting job

The Giants have Buster Posey under contract for another year, and with Joey Bart and Patrick Bailey in the system, they feel they'll be set behind the plate through the end of the decade, at least. There might not be an organization in all of baseball with more catching depth if you account for all levels.

And yet, nine days from the opener, the Giants do not have a starting catcher. 

They don't even have a healthy and active catcher on their 40-man roster, as Posey has opted out of the season and Aramis Garcia is recovering from hip surgery

What was once a heated two-man duel to be the backup has turned into a three-man competition for two jobs. The organization that has for so long prided itself on catching stability may not even have a set starter this year, with Rob Brantly, Tyler Heineman and late-riser Chadwick Tromp battling for two jobs. In the wake of Posey's decision, manager Gabe Kapler has tried to stay positive.

"I think it's clear right now that we have three catchers who are putting their best foot forward and giving themselves the best opportunity to be evaluated," Kapler said. "All three of those guys have different skill sets that they bring to the table."

But, Kapler added, the Giants may not have the same two catchers "a month down the road."

Bart looms as one potential option, but for now, Kapler and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi have made it clear they need to see further development. Bart is not a candidate to stand on the line at Dodger Stadium next Thursday, but these three are. Here are the scouting reports Kapler gave on the non-roster invitees vying to replace Posey:

Tyler Heineman

The 29-year-old played in five games last season with the Marlins and signed as a minor league free agent. In that limited cameo, he had a homer off Zach Wheeler and double off Jacob deGrom. 

"Heineman, we identified as obviously a switch-hitting catcher -- those guys are always valuable -- who could do damage against velocity," Kapler said. "You always want to have a hitter on your roster or several hitters on your roster who can catch up with high-velocity fastballs because they're more prevalent around the game. That's one of Tyler's strengths. Obviously the flexibility of having a switch-hitter is important. He's also got exceptional recall. He's a good game-planner and we're really, really confident that he's going to be able to implement our pitching staff's game plans and have good recall around those, which is really important. If a pitcher is working on a specific pitch or has a specific way we want that pitcher to attack an opposing hitter, we want Tyler to be able to lead that charge and get that pitcher back on track, and he's got that sort of skill set."

Rob Brantly

The most experienced of the bunch by far, Brantly, a left-handed hitter, got 323 at-bats for the Marlins in his first two seasons and resurfaced with the White Sox in 2015 and 2017. Brantly has spent most of his career in Triple-A. Kapler got to know him last year in Philadelphia, although Brantly got just one big-league at-bat. 

"Brantly I have a lot of familiarity with from my time in Philadelphia. He's a really good at-bat against right-handed pitching, in particular, he sees pitches and really understands the strike zone well," Kapler said. He understands the strike zone well on the offensive side but also on the defensive side. He's got high energy and he's upbeat and is as positive as any person you'll be around. He's really made the clubhouse environment better."

Chadwick Tromp

The newcomer to the race, Tromp was a late addition to Summer Camp but is making a late charge. He was coming off an injury last year and played just 26 games in Triple-A for the Reds, but the Giants liked what they saw. Tromp hit two homers in a camp game on Sunday, opening some eyes. 

[RELATED: Posey's leadership will be missed by team in 2020]

"I think it's been clear over the last couple of days that he has the ability to drive the ball," Kapler said. "That's evident. I think we're all seeing that. I think the bat speed is real, I think that's something we need to be paying close attention to. It's notable that we feel like he's going to be good against left-handed pitching. In the past, he's had pretty even or even reverse splits, but I don't think we have enough of a feel for what he will do with major league pitching. We'll continue to evaluate.

He's a very good leader behind the plate and is already developing a comfortable but strong rapport with the pitchers. I think pitchers are comfortable with him, but I also think they respect him. He has strong opinions and is vocal about those opinions and he has done a nice job of leading with his words and his body language."