How Pablo Sandoval impressed Gabe Kapler in Giants live batting practice

How Pablo Sandoval impressed Gabe Kapler in Giants live batting practice

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The first session of live batting practice drew a crowd, but for the Giants hitters involved, there wasn't all that much buzz. 

With Farhan Zaidi, Scott Harris, Gabe Kapler and half the coaching staff watching from behind the backstop, and the analytics staff set up to track pitch characteristics and swings, Brandon Belt stepped up to the plate and took a couple of walks. Buster Posey did the same, tracking pitches into the catcher's glove and then retreating to the dugout to tell hitting coach Donnie Ecker what he was seeing. 

And then Pablo Sandoval dug into the batter's box.

Sandoval swung at the first five pitches he saw from prospect Luis Madero, fouling a couple off and lining a couple into the grass. He was just as aggressive in his second session. When Kapler sat down with reporters a few minutes later, he was still laughing over Sandoval's mentality.

"I've never seen an approach to live BP like Pablo just took," Kapler said. 

The manager loved seeing it for a couple of reasons. First of all, Sandoval figures to be Kapler's top pinch-hit option for most of the year, in part because of that aggression. Kapler said earlier this week that he always feared seeing Sandoval step in when he was managing the Phillies, in large part because he knew Sandoval would be ready to do damage from the first pitch, unlike many hitters who like to first look at a couple offerings in the late innings. 

"It kind of demonstrates why he's so dangerous at the plate, because he's just prepared to drive every pitch," Kapler said. "Generally you calibrate one of two ways: By taking and seeing pitches, and the second way is by swinging at pitches -- and he just took aggressive hacks on everything that was thrown up there."

The second reason Kapler liked what he saw was health-related. Sandoval is well ahead of schedule in his rehab from Tommy John surgery, but he's still likely to miss the first month of the season as he works his throwing arm back into shape. The Giants have, though, discussed the fact that at some point they may have a tough decision to make. 

With a 26th roster spot, they could, in theory, carry Sandoval as he continues to rehab, using him only as a pinch-hitter. On Tuesday, as Sandoval hungrily went after two-seamers and changeups from Madero, he looked the part of someone who could be ready for a hitting-focused role on Opening Day. Kapler noted that Sandoval was "right on" every pitch.

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"He's been thinking about his swing for a long time and working on his swing for a while now," Kapler said. "It's going to be like a bit of a tricky puzzle, because we're going to want to get him reps at his pace earlier in camp, and at the same time we know that he's not going to be ready at the same pace as some of our other players. 

"We want to be respectful of the pace that he wants to work at, so we're going to have to weigh those two factors."

Will Clark shares funny story about homer off Nolan Ryan in MLB debut

Will Clark shares funny story about homer off Nolan Ryan in MLB debut

On April 8, 1986, 34 years ago to the date, Will Clark made his major league debut with the Giants.

And it was a debut Clark and everyone else involved won't forget.

Clark's first career at-bat is the stuff of legends.

With the Giants facing the Astros in Houston, Clark had to face Nolan Ryan, one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball history.

Instead of easing Clark in by putting him at the bottom of the lineup, Giants manager Roger Craig batted the rookie second, guaranteeing a first-inning at-bat.

Rather than striking out against "The Ryan Express," Clark crushed his first career homer in his first at-bat.

In an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area's Amy Gutierrez this past weekend, Clark recalled the scene in the dugout after he rounded the bases.

"So I come in and everyone is excited and I'm high-fiving everybody and we sit down on the bench and there's just like this calm, and nobody was really fired up," Clark said. "Everybody was kind of looking around and [Giants pitcher] Mike Krukow sorta says it best. Everybody's looking around going 'What the hell did he just do?' That kind of thing. Off of Nolan Ryan. Dead center field in the Astrodome.

"So then, I'm sitting there, and like I said, this calm came over me, and I don't know why, I looked at Chili Davis, who was sitting on my left, and I said 'Chili, he's going to drill me next time up?' And he goes 'Oh hell yeah.'

"And the next time up, Nolan's in his wind up and I'm already easing to the ground and it was up and in, but it was just a message pitch."

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The homer was Clark's only hit of the game, but the Giants went on to win 8-3.

So in his big league debut, Clark homered, didn't get drilled by Ryan and left the Astrodome with a win. Not a bad day for the 22-year-old.

How Gabe Kapler, Giants coaches are getting work done during MLB hiatus

How Gabe Kapler, Giants coaches are getting work done during MLB hiatus

For a month in Scottsdale, reporters asked subtle questions, hoping to dig up another breadcrumb that would ultimately help answer what fans were asking. Who was Gabe Kapler going to use in the ninth inning? Which pitcher would be his fifth starter? Was he going to have Mike Yastrzemski as his leadoff hitter, or Mauricio Dubon, or perhaps someone else? Is Buster Posey still hitting in the heart of the Giants' lineup?

When baseball resumes, whenever it does, that process will pick back up. There's something special about a lineup. People want to see it, debate it, tell you why their version would be better. At some point, that will be part of normal life again. But for now, Kapler still mostly has managed to keep his preferences close to the chest. The answers to all those questions are known only to Kapler, some of his coaches and analytics people, and front-office officials. 

Oh, and also the PlayStation sitting in his condo in Scottsdale.

Kapler is an outspoken proponent of social distancing and flattening the curve, and his staff has followed suit. But it's a group full of restless people who won't just simply wait for the call that they can return. The staff has been trying to find ways to improve during this hiatus, starting with that PlayStation.

It was the brainchild of Justin Viele, the young co-hitting coach who uses "MLB: The Show" to scout opposing pitchers. Kapler has picked the habit up over the past month, using the video game to get through a season in quick manage mode.

"You can play a game in about five minutes," Kapler said on this week's Giants Insider Podcast. "It's just kind of going through each at-bat and making the decisions along the way. It's a good way to learn opposing bullpens and who is in them and how highly they're rated. That's another way we're using video games to stay in shape."

For nearly a month now, the staff has been barred from Scottsdale Stadium. Kapler's office there had two doors and he encouraged his 13 coaches to walk through on their way to other meetings, or pop in during the day for a quick chat. He has tried to keep that vibe going during a strange time for the sport, using technology that's now part of everyday life for a country on lockdown. 

Yes, the Giants are fully on board the Zoom train. They're using it for big meetings and small ones. First base/outfield coach Antoan Richardson is holding Zoom calls with outfielders to dig into the nuances of outfield play, something that can get lost during a long season. The staff even uses Zoom to run a book club. They're currently reading "The Culture Code" by Daniel Coyle. The book sells itself as unlocking "the secrets of highly successful groups."

"We're breaking into smaller groups as a staff -- and as you know, we've got a pretty big staff -- so we've got several smaller groups having Zoom calls discussing how to make our culture stronger as a result of reading that book," Kapler said. 

The Giants also make regular use of Trello, an app that tracks and logs conversations, videos and drill packages. If one of his hitting coaches has a 30-minute conversation with a player and shares some highlights, Kapler can get a quick rundown of how it went. Those types of conversations are happening daily, although Kapler said he's careful not to overdo it. He's talking to several players a day but understands that some would prefer their space right now. 

"This is just an opportunity to connect," Kapler said. "I think when players are isolated and they're by themselves, a catch-up conversation can only help."

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The coaches are doing the same, although there's only so much you can accomplish over the phone or during a video call. Still, the Giants are regularly sending workout plans to players and some are taking part in virtual yoga classes. The organization's nutrition department is taping cooking demonstrations to help players make healthy meals. 

The rest of the time right now isn't all that different whether you're working from home because your tech office in SoMa closed, or because you're the manager of the Giants and you have no ballpark to report to. Kapler, a health enthusiast throughout his career, was digging deep into COVID-19 even before camp shut down, and one of the first things he does every morning is listen to "Up First," a 10-minute news podcast from NPR. 

Like most Americans, he is digesting regular updates on social media, where he also has gotten a kick out of seeing some of the creative training methods of his players. Kapler is encouraged that the Giants are using this time to try and get better, and he said they'll come out of this with "best practices" and some new teaching tools. They'll also be much better with a video game controller in their hands. 

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The PlayStation simulations will continue, and Kapler also plans to play "Out of the Park Baseball," a computer game that also allows simulations. The Giants aren't facing NL West opponents right now, but Kapler is still trying to simulate that feeling. 

So ... how are the virtual Giants doing?

"Maybe I'll lean on the sample size is too small right now," Kapler said, laughing. "But I'll say this, it's fun to see the player of the game. I sent a player of the game screenshot to Brandon Crawford when we beat Madison Bumgarner, and that was pretty fun. We had a nice back and forth and he sent me back a shot of him in a hoops game, so that was kind of cool. And then I did the same thing with Wilmer Flores. 

"It's kind of a fun way to stay in touch with players and a fun way to stay up to speed on what's going on around baseball."