SAN DIEGO -- When you hear the words "player development," you think of 19-year-olds learning on back fields at the minor league facility in Scottsdale, or a roving hitting instructor spending time making swing changes with prospects Joey Bart or Heliot Ramos, or a coach teaching a Logan Webb or Sean Hjelle a new pitch.
But when Giants manager Gabe Kapler talks about player development -- and he does so often -- he's also thinking about guys like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. Kapler said this week that there's "not much I feel more strongly about" than players continuing to develop at the big league level, and that played a huge role as he hired a young staff that will ideally bring an innovative approach.
"There's evidence all over the place in Major League Baseball about players who reinvent themselves or take major steps forward and reestablish their value at the Major League level," Kapler said this week at the MLB Winter Meetings.
The Giants are building for the future, but they also believe they can squeeze much more out of the existing core. And when Bart and Ramos are veterans one day, they want those guys to continue to find new levels, too. As he talked about player development at the big league level, Kapler pivoted and told a story about Bryce Harper, who already had more than 900 games under his belt when he joined Kapler's Phillies last season.
"Bryce Harper, I think, was influenced heavily by Paco Figueroa, our first base and outfield coach, mostly just because Paco was not concerned about approaching Bryce," Kapler said. "He recognized that Bryce Harper wanted to be coached and wanted to develop, and he was willing to approach. Bryce recognized that so much so that at the end of the year when we were doing our exit meetings, Bryce recognized that Paco had been influential in his career and helped him become a better outfielder and baserunner."
Harper was worth negative-26 Defensive Runs Saved in 2018 according to Fangraphs -- just about the only blemish on his résumé as a free agent -- but was plus-9 in his first season in Philadelphia, a massive improvement. The Giants were actually intent on going that path long before Kapler arrived. When they offered Harper $310 million last year, their existing analytics and coaching staffs had ideas about how they could get more out of Harper defensively with positioning changes.
Harper's not the only example the Giants will use to sell their vision to veteran players. General manager Scott Harris mentioned Gerrit Cole as another who found new ways to add to his game.
"Look at the strides he made the last two seasons and now he signed the largest free-agent contract (for a pitcher) in the history of the game," Harris said. "You look at the strides he made when he first burst onto the scene for the Pirates and what he did in Houston. Their coaching staff was largely responsible for the development he saw at the Major League level."
The Astros' staff has gotten a lot of credit for turning Cole into the pitcher the Pirates were expecting when they took him first overall in 2011. Cole had a 3.50 ERA in Pittsburgh and a 2.68 ERA in Houston, where his strikeout rate jumped from 8.4 per nine innings to 13.1. He was worth 15.4 WAR in five seasons with the Pirates and then skyrocketed to 13.4 in two seasons in Houston.
Kapler and Harris are not walking into an organization that has a Harper or Cole, but they believe their new coaching staff and player-development methods can get the most out of existing talent. That'll be a focus in spring training, and the conversations have already begun with some veterans. Kapler, who mentioned J.D. Martinez as another example of late-career adjustments, said he has spoken to Posey multiple times since getting hired.
"I think that a lot of established successful Major Leaguers want to get better and sometimes they don't know how," Kapler said. "In some cases, it's because coaches haven't approached them because they don't want to break something that's working well, but I think those days are gone and I think players crave having coaches approach them and ask them to make changes."