A common -- and legitimate -- complaint among Giants fans these days is that so many players have come in and out of the clubhouse during the last three seasons that it's difficult to truly build a connection with this roster, but that shouldn't be the case with the newest free-agent addition. The Giants, and their fans, have been here before.
Tommy La Stella is a second baseman who has a smaller frame, grew up in the New York area, broke into the big leagues in 2014, has made one All-Star team, hits from the left side, and is known above all for having a preternatural ability to avoid striking out. The Giants already had one of those.
Joe Panik made his big league debut three weeks after La Stella and quickly became a fan favorite. He was also one of the first major casualties of the Farhan Zaidi regime, but not because of his profile. The Giants felt Panik was on the downslope of his career, but they loved what he brought when he was right. Zaidi and the new coaching staff value nothing more than a great feel for the strike zone, a major reason why they were so drawn to La Stella.
The 32-year-old led the Majors the last two seasons with a strikeout rate of 7.3 percent. He struck out just a dozen times as an everyday player in 2020, leading an absolutely stacked walk/strikeout ratio leaderboard. At 2.25 walks for every strikeout, La Stella easily outpaced the rest of the top five: Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, Freddie Freeman and Bryce Harper. When you look at a list like that, it's easy to see why Zaidi has made plate discipline such a core value during this rebuild.
"I've spent an unhealthy amount of time just staring at his 27 walks to 12 strikeout ratio from last year," Zaidi said last week, laughing. "That probably says more about me than him, although it does say a lot about him."
La Stella said he has always been this way. Even as a young hitter he hated striking out, and he has maintained that approach as the game has changed, albeit with a slightly increased push for power. He said his focus has always been on putting the barrel on the ball and making the defense get him out.
"It's just letting the flow of the at-bat dictate my approach, and not necessarily 'going for it' every at-bat," he said. "If I'm facing a difficult pitcher, somebody that I don't see well, I don't think it suits me to be trying to drive the ball over the fence. My consistency starts to plummet. Over the years, I've kind of identified the moments where I feel like I can take a shot versus more of just focusing on bat-to-ball skills and hopefully finding some grass out there."
What intrigues the Giants, what made them so comfortable extending to a third year on the contract, is the power La Stella has added while not sacrificing that approach. He hit 16 homers in just 80 games in 2019, slugging .486, a career-high. With the Los Angeles Angels and A's last year, La Stella slugged .449, hitting five homers and posting more doubles (14) than strikeouts.
Zaidi said he could see La Stella hitting in any of the first four spots in the order on a given night, depending on how the Giants set up the rest of their lineup. They see tremendous value in getting him as many plate appearances as possible, knowing that very few of them will end with a quick walk back to the dugout.
Against right-handers, in particular, the front office and coaching staff have to be salivating at the thought of La Stella hitting between Mike Yastrzemski, who has one of the best two-strike approaches in the game, and Brandon Belt, also known for his tremendous eye at the plate.
"I feel and I think organizationally we feel like there are benefits to this kind of plate discipline and at-bat quality that go beyond the player stat line," Zaidi said. "It makes it difficult for the pitcher. You get starting pitchers out of the game sooner, the guy on deck gets to see more pitches. All of those things -- the ability to grind out at-bats -- just lift the entire offense, and that's one reason why we have been attracted to those kinds of guys and want to create that offensive culture, which our hitting coaches have done a great job of. Now, you need a balance of patient hitters with guys who do damage, and ideally you have a nice mix of all that, and he just complements that group really well."