SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Picture this scenario. The Giants have a one-run lead in the seventh inning at Oracle Park, with a young reliever trying to strand a runner on second and two outs. He came to the United States when he was 17, and while his English has improved, he still is not close to being fluent. In a huge spot, with 30,000 people staring down at him, the pitcher is trying to communicate his pitch preference in a language he has not yet mastered, to a catcher and a manager who can chat with him, but did not grow up speaking the same language.
The Gabe Kapler Era has thus far been dominated by curiosity, by a desire to find a different and more efficient way to do things. As Kapler sits around with his 13-person coaching staff, the question is often a simple one.
Is there a better way to do this?
During one meeting, Kapler and bench coach Kai Correa asked quality assurance coach Nick Ortiz if there was a better way to communicate with Spanish-speaking pitchers during games. The Giants asked for and received permission to have Ortiz in the dugout as an in-game interpreter. He will not replace one of the seven coaches allowed in the dugout per MLB rules, but he will be more visible than most of them. Every time Kapler or pitching coach Andrew Bailey goes out to the mound to speak to a pitcher whose first language was Spanish, Ortiz will come along as an interpreter.
"It's something that definitely will make an impact," Ortiz said. "Every time you try to bring information to someone, you want to make sure they have a 100 percent understanding of what you're trying to do."
Once you hear the idea, you wonder why teams haven't always done it this way. When an organization signs a veteran from Japan or South Korea, he always gets his own interpreter, someone to walk to the mound with the manager and help with communication. But for some reason, teams have not done that with Spanish-speaking players.
The new-look Giants asked a simple question: Why? Why are we putting these players at a disadvantage?
"It feels really intuitive, because there are so many nuances in those conversations on the mound, between a pitching coach and a pitcher, and to some degree when you're taking a pitcher out of the game as a manager," Kapler said. "You really want to send a concise message and you want not just the words to be translated, but the intent of those words to be communicated effectively. When the adrenaline is running high, I think it's easier to digest when something is shared with you in your native language. It does feel really intuitive and like something that we really want to experiment with."
It wasn't until 2016 that MLB required every team to have full-time Spanish language interpreters. The Giants use Erwin Higueros, a member of the organization's broadcast team and PR staff for interviews, but he is not in the dugout or clubhouse during games. Before that, in a sport where many of the biggest stars come from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, players often had to speak to reporters and coaches through teammates who were fluent, or close, in both languages. Gregor Blanco helped plenty of young Giants over the years, but sometimes it was someone like Emmanuel Burriss, who spoke good Spanish.
Kapler said he thought about trying this in Philadelphia, but the staff there never felt like the situation was quite right. In San Francisco, he has hired a young group that is focused on being open-minded and trying new things. When the Giants announced most of their staff at the Winter Meetings, Kapler said one of the final remaining hires would be a native Spanish speaker. In January the Giants hired Ortiz, a 46-year-old who spent 15 seasons in the minor leagues and 16 offseasons in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Ortiz was born in Puerto Rico.
"He's got a really good way about him and a delivery that makes you want to listen," Kapler said. "It just felt like the right combination at the right time."
The Giants will start using Ortiz as an in-game interpreter this spring to help players get comfortable. They plan to use Ortiz for every native Spanish speaker, including Johnny Cueto, who speaks English well but still prefers to use Higueros as an interpreter for interviews. The staff also wants the catchers to get used to the transition.
"I'm sure there were certainly times where I've been out there and thought I was communicating better than I was," Buster Posey said. "This'll button up the communication."
The hope is that this catches on and becomes part of the norm. On the 40-man roster alone, the Giants have eight pitchers who were born outside of the United States, and for the first time, their player-specific spring training workout plans and goals were handed to them in Spanish.
Kapler is hoping this gives the native Spanish speakers a little more help during games. He speaks Spanish himself, but said there were times in the past when he would have said more to a pitcher on the mound had an interpreter been there.
"I would have expanded on a thought and had the ability to influence the conversation differently had I had a native Spanish speaker with me," he said. "There's a huge investment, on my part personally but also with our coaching staff, to have our native Spanish speakers feel like they're on equal footing as our native English speakers. I just care deeply about that."