Samardzija's velocity returns, but Phillies knock him out early in 'off night for everybody'


Samardzija's velocity returns, but Phillies knock him out early in 'off night for everybody'

PHILADELPHIA — The locals were buzzing Monday afternoon, and not just because the 76ers had a playoff game on deck. The weather in Philadelphia has finally turned, and this city enjoyed some sunshine after a long and cold winter. 

Jeff Samardzija enjoyed it, too … up to a certain point.

After a couple of weeks during which his fastball sat 90-92 mph in the early innings and basically topped out at 94, Samardzija came out firing 96 mph heaters in the first inning at Citizens Bank Park. What was the difference?

“It was a nice night out,” he said. “We were sweating a bit and getting going.”

That was the positive. The negative was that Samardzija had his manager sweating in the first inning, too. Bruce Bochy almost had to pull his starter during a 40-pitch frame that included three walks and a long homer from Odubel Herrera. The velocity is back. The command has disappeared. Samardzija has walked 13 batters in four starts. He walked 14 before the All-Star break last season. He said he needs to work on harnessing the velocity that has returned, and sharpening a slider that often times looked like a flat 90 mph fastball in an 11-0 loss. 

“I’ve gotta get that slider right,” he said after lasting just four innings. 

Still, the Giants were oddly happy given the blowout score. It’s easier to sharpen your command than it is to throw in the upper 90s, and Samardzija hit 97.3 mph in the third inning, a throwback to prior seasons. 

“I was encouraged, really,” Bochy said. “He’s back to having normal stuff, velocity, everything. He’s got to get the command now. He’s been pitching without that and missing spots.”

Coming off a layoff for a shoulder injury, Samardzija admitted that his preparation has been affected. He can’t throw long bullpen sessions to try and tighten certain pitches, so he’ll need to find some other way to bring the slider back. 

The Giants will need it, too, given their current state. The news on Johnny Cueto earlier in the day was viewed as a positive and a surprise, but the Giants still will spend the next month without their two best pitchers. They could use a nice run from Samardzija, and they’ll need the full squad to resemble the team from the weekend, not the one from Monday night. The lineup did nothing against Zach Eflin and made three errors in the field. The bullpen was hammered. 

“It was just an off night of everybody,” Bochy said. 

Farhan Zaidi already making subtle changes to Giants with 'modern approach'


Farhan Zaidi already making subtle changes to Giants with 'modern approach'

SAN FRANCISCO — When longtime Giants employees sat down in a suite on the 62nd floor of the Delano hotel last Monday morning, they immediately noticed a difference. There were no scouts in the room.

For the first time in years, the Giants did not bring any of their scouts to the annual MLB Winter Meetings, instead relying on a smaller group in the suite that had slightly different kinds of conversations.

Now, that’s not to say the Giants are going all in one direction. It was notable that one of the first things that president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi did as a Giant was beef up the scouting department, hiring Zack Minasian as director of pro scouting and Michael Holmes as director of amateur scouting.

But there certainly was a different vibe in the room, members of the front office said. Conversations were not as structured. As one person described it, the Giants used to focus on a player and then go through the check list, asking coaches, scouts, trainers and analytics people about said player one-by-one.

With Zaidi in charge of the room, the conversation was said to be more wide-open. If there were 15 people in a meeting, Zaidi tried to bounce around and check in with all of them. 

“He’s able to be very inclusionary in a meeting. Everybody had something to say that advanced the discussion,” said team president and CEO Larry Baer, who sat through several in-depth meetings while in Las Vegas. “He’s able to sort of moderate and curate that, and that’s a skill, because you’ve got to be thinking about it and synthesizing the information as it comes in. I had hoped that would be the case. I had heard that’s the case. But it really was the case, as we’re digging in now.”

The Giants have put their future in Zaidi’s hands, which made their latest Winter Meetings experience as much about their executives as any incoming players. Throughout, you saw hints at subtle changes behind the scenes.

Asked what the Giants liked about Mike Gerber, an outfielder claimed from the Detroit Tigers on Monday, Zaidi gave the kind of defensive assessment you haven’t heard around AT&T Park, at least publicly.

“We’ve got a really good analytics department that takes a look at Statcast data and really tries to understand what guys — from a statistical standpoint — what their range looks like, what their top speeds and sprint speeds are,” Zaidi said. “He registered well in those categories.”

For the Giants, being open about all of this is a departure. They always have done more in the analytics realm than is publicly known, but for some reason, the front office spent years downplaying use of advanced methods. On the first day of Zaidi’s first Winter Meetings, team employees openly spoke about using Statcast and TrackMan, and talked of exit velocities and spin rates. 

This change will be seen in the clubhouse next season, too. The Giants do not plan to replace Chad Chop, who was a batting practice pitcher and teamed with Shawon Dunston on replays. Instead, that spot in the traveling party likely will go to a second member of the organization’s analytics department.

Last season, the Giants hired Michael Schwartze as a baseball operations analyst and had him set up in the clubhouse before all games, distributing data to players. The plan this year is to have two analysts available to players. Two of those players might be Rule 5 draft selections, as the Giants made two picks in that draft for the first time. 

There will be plenty more changes over time. For now, Zaidi is making subtle tweaks, while also showing plenty of respect to the way the Giants built a dynasty.

Baer hired Zaidi in part because he is equally comfortable sitting with analytics people and scouts, and while the Giants changed the nature of some discussions, Zaidi still honors both sides of the room. Brian Sabean, John Barr and Dick Tidrow remain integral parts of discussions, and all three will stay with the organization despite having their roles altered.

Time will tell if Zaidi can turn this around. For now, the staff he inherited seemed energized, and the man who hired him is pleased with the new direction of the franchise. 

“He’s just bringing a different approach,” Baer said. “It doesn’t mean the things we’ve done in the past were wrong, but I do think it’s a very modern approach, and it’s based on a lot of the learning that he’s accumulated in his work with analytics and his work also with scouts.”

Hunter Pence, Dominican Winter League team dance their way to playoffs


Hunter Pence, Dominican Winter League team dance their way to playoffs

Hunter Pence is back in the playoffs, and that means one thing: epic dance party. 

The former Giants outfielder is playing for Toros del Este, who rode a four-game winning streak into the round-robin playoffs. The celebration was on after they beat Leones del Escogido. 

Pence is working on a new swing and running style in the Dominican Republic, as he looks to keep his career going. As always with Pence, it's only been positive vibes with his new team. 

Through six games, Pence is batting .250 (6-for-24) with one double, two RBI and two runs scored. With the veteran outfielder, though, his impact goes beyond the box score. After just his second game on the team, Pence already was giving a shirtless motivational speech

The Giants didn't have it this year, but maybe Pence can bring some old Even Year Magic to the DR in 2018.