Giants

How Giants' Mike Yastrzemski has turned into star year after close call

Giants

Farhan Zaidi spent much of his first Winter Meetings with the Giants sidestepping questions about how much he may be able to spend on a free agent like Bryce Harper, or what he might do with veterans like Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith. But one night, in his suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Zaidi was asked how the Giants could find their own Max Muncy or Chris Taylor. 

Zaidi smiled as he talked of two of his greatest hits as the Dodgers' general manager. He said the first step for the Giants was obvious.

“We have to, as an organization, have a mindset of giving guys opportunities,” Zaidi said back then. “The Chris Taylor and Max Muncy success stories weren’t just about their acquisition, but it was also about giving them the chance at the big league level and giving them some runway.”

As the Giants return to Los Angeles this weekend with the task of solving Muncy -- who has turned into an All-Star -- in particular, they can legitimately boast that they have found their own version. Mike Yastrzemski drove onto that runway and became a nice addition to the outfield in 2019. Early on in 2020, he has taken the next step, becoming one of the game's best all-around players.

Per FanGraphs, Yastrzemski currently leads the majors with 1.2 Wins Above Replacement, more than halfway to his 2019 total. He is fourth in the big leagues with a .467 on-base percentage and is tied for the lead with 12 runs. Yastrzemski has three homers in 60 at-bats and he's slugging .638. 

 

This is all a small sample, of course, but the Giants have seen enough in three weeks of swings and swing decisions to feel that the improvement is somewhat real. When Yastrzemski hit two homers, including a walk-off, last week against the San Diego Padres, it was easy to focus on the fact that he finally put a pair of balls into McCovey Cove, or that he had hit them off a righty and a lefty. 

But the coaching staff was thrilled that night because of the deeper meaning of those swings. New hitting coach Donnie Ecker said the staff preaches that hitters should find "multiple solutions" at the plate, and he saw that in that game. Yastrzemski got a changeup down and in from Chris Paddack -- who has one of the game's best -- and pulled it down the line for his first homer. The walk-off was on a 93-mph fastball up and in from Matt Strahm, a tall lefty who stands as far to the first base side of the rubber as he can, giving lefties the impression that he's throwing from behind them. Yastrzemski put that one in the water, too. 

"It's really something you see the top five percent of hitters do," Ecker said. "It's something that in our hitting department we looked at and we checked a really cool box that night. It's just something he can build on and just something that he can use for his future."

Ecker is in his first year working with Yastrzemski, but he's no stranger to his story. While working for the Cincinnati Reds last year, Ecker talked often with catcher Curt Casali, one of Yastrzemski's Vanderbilt teammates and close friends. 

"I kind of got fascinated with his story," Ecker said. "I studied him and you kind of saw the ingredients that got him up to San Francisco, but now once you're around him, I think you just double-click into who he is and we're not surprised to see him performing the way he's performing."

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Some of those ingredients, Ecker said, are thoughtfulness, intelligence, maintenance of his body, and a seriousness about his career and getting better. The last one has added another important tool for Yastrzemski this season. 

Yastrzemski is swinging at 13 percent fewer pitches this season. After swinging at 29 percent of the pitches he saw outside of the zone last year, Yastrzemski is down to 18 percent. Above everything else, the new hitting coaches want the Giants to focus on making good swing decisions, and Yastrzemski is doing that early on. 

 

"It's more of a mental thing, trying to game plan against pitchers, and our hitting staff has been unbelievable with that. They're coming up with plans to help us stay locked in and figure out what we should be swinging at, what we need to be taking," Yastrzemski said. 

That improvement has made Yastrzemski a perfect fit atop the lineup for manager Gabe Kapler, who said he has found that he can move Yastrzemski from first to third in the order, or right field to center field, without the 29-year-old blinking an eye. 

Yastrzemski started three games this week in center at Coors Field, a spot that will always hold special meaning in his career. In Milwaukee last July 14, Bruce Bochy called Yastrzemski into his office and told him he would be headed back to Triple-A. Yastrzemski packed his bags, but when Alex Dickerson's back flared up, he ended up on the chartered flight to Denver instead. He made the most of the lifeline, picking up four hits in the first game of that series and nine in 20 total at-bats while playing every inning of a grueling four-game series. That was only the beginning. 

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Since that first day in Denver, Yastrzemski ranks 10th in the majors with 3.5 WAR. He has a .382 on-base percentage and 19 homers in 81 games, which is why as the Giants walk into Dodger Stadium tonight, they'll do so behind a 29-year-old who very quietly has turned into a star since getting his latest second chance.

It all started with a meeting in the visiting clubhouse in Milwaukee. Yastrzemski said he hasn't forgotten the message Bochy delivered that day. 

"He said this isn't the last time we're going to see you," he said. "And he wasn't wrong."