Bruce Bochy

How Giants' Mike Yastrzemski has turned into star year after close call

How Giants' Mike Yastrzemski has turned into star year after close call

Farhan Zaidi spent much of his first Winter Meetings with the Giants sidestepping questions about how much he may be able to spend on a free agent like Bryce Harper, or what he might do with veterans like Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith. But one night, in his suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Zaidi was asked how the Giants could find their own Max Muncy or Chris Taylor. 

Zaidi smiled as he talked of two of his greatest hits as the Dodgers' general manager. He said the first step for the Giants was obvious.

“We have to, as an organization, have a mindset of giving guys opportunities,” Zaidi said back then. “The Chris Taylor and Max Muncy success stories weren’t just about their acquisition, but it was also about giving them the chance at the big league level and giving them some runway.”

As the Giants return to Los Angeles this weekend with the task of solving Muncy -- who has turned into an All-Star -- in particular, they can legitimately boast that they have found their own version. Mike Yastrzemski drove onto that runway and became a nice addition to the outfield in 2019. Early on in 2020, he has taken the next step, becoming one of the game's best all-around players.

Per FanGraphs, Yastrzemski currently leads the majors with 1.2 Wins Above Replacement, more than halfway to his 2019 total. He is fourth in the big leagues with a .467 on-base percentage and is tied for the lead with 12 runs. Yastrzemski has three homers in 60 at-bats and he's slugging .638. 

This is all a small sample, of course, but the Giants have seen enough in three weeks of swings and swing decisions to feel that the improvement is somewhat real. When Yastrzemski hit two homers, including a walk-off, last week against the San Diego Padres, it was easy to focus on the fact that he finally put a pair of balls into McCovey Cove, or that he had hit them off a righty and a lefty. 

But the coaching staff was thrilled that night because of the deeper meaning of those swings. New hitting coach Donnie Ecker said the staff preaches that hitters should find "multiple solutions" at the plate, and he saw that in that game. Yastrzemski got a changeup down and in from Chris Paddack -- who has one of the game's best -- and pulled it down the line for his first homer. The walk-off was on a 93-mph fastball up and in from Matt Strahm, a tall lefty who stands as far to the first base side of the rubber as he can, giving lefties the impression that he's throwing from behind them. Yastrzemski put that one in the water, too. 

"It's really something you see the top five percent of hitters do," Ecker said. "It's something that in our hitting department we looked at and we checked a really cool box that night. It's just something he can build on and just something that he can use for his future."

Ecker is in his first year working with Yastrzemski, but he's no stranger to his story. While working for the Cincinnati Reds last year, Ecker talked often with catcher Curt Casali, one of Yastrzemski's Vanderbilt teammates and close friends. 

"I kind of got fascinated with his story," Ecker said. "I studied him and you kind of saw the ingredients that got him up to San Francisco, but now once you're around him, I think you just double-click into who he is and we're not surprised to see him performing the way he's performing."

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

Some of those ingredients, Ecker said, are thoughtfulness, intelligence, maintenance of his body, and a seriousness about his career and getting better. The last one has added another important tool for Yastrzemski this season. 

Yastrzemski is swinging at 13 percent fewer pitches this season. After swinging at 29 percent of the pitches he saw outside of the zone last year, Yastrzemski is down to 18 percent. Above everything else, the new hitting coaches want the Giants to focus on making good swing decisions, and Yastrzemski is doing that early on. 

"It's more of a mental thing, trying to game plan against pitchers, and our hitting staff has been unbelievable with that. They're coming up with plans to help us stay locked in and figure out what we should be swinging at, what we need to be taking," Yastrzemski said. 

That improvement has made Yastrzemski a perfect fit atop the lineup for manager Gabe Kapler, who said he has found that he can move Yastrzemski from first to third in the order, or right field to center field, without the 29-year-old blinking an eye. 

Yastrzemski started three games this week in center at Coors Field, a spot that will always hold special meaning in his career. In Milwaukee last July 14, Bruce Bochy called Yastrzemski into his office and told him he would be headed back to Triple-A. Yastrzemski packed his bags, but when Alex Dickerson's back flared up, he ended up on the chartered flight to Denver instead. He made the most of the lifeline, picking up four hits in the first game of that series and nine in 20 total at-bats while playing every inning of a grueling four-game series. That was only the beginning. 

[RELATED: Kapler breaks down his in-game strategy]

Since that first day in Denver, Yastrzemski ranks 10th in the majors with 3.5 WAR. He has a .382 on-base percentage and 19 homers in 81 games, which is why as the Giants walk into Dodger Stadium tonight, they'll do so behind a 29-year-old who very quietly has turned into a star since getting his latest second chance.

It all started with a meeting in the visiting clubhouse in Milwaukee. Yastrzemski said he hasn't forgotten the message Bochy delivered that day. 

"He said this isn't the last time we're going to see you," he said. "And he wasn't wrong."

Bruce Bochy reveals postgame drink changed whether Giants won, lost

Bruce Bochy reveals postgame drink changed whether Giants won, lost

Bruce Bochy always made sure to earn his postgame beverage.

During a virtual event hosted by Silver Oak Napa Valley, the former Giants manager explained that he only would pour himself a glass of red wine after San Francisco won a game, and would relegate himself to drinking beer after losses.

“It became a mantra," Bochy said (H/T The Athletic). "In fact, Pablo Sandoval would be in the dugout and he would start chanting, ‘Skipper wants wine tonight! Let’s go!’ "

Bochy won over 2,000 regular-season games in his MLB managerial career, not to mention three World Series titles, so he clearly enjoyed his fair share of bottles over the years.

[RELATED: Nine notes and observations from Giants' first homestand]

Among the many gifts Bochy received over his final victory lap season with the Giants was a massive, custom bottle of red wine courtesy of the San Francisco bullpen.

Although Bochy found himself in the win column plenty of times as a manager, he ended his overall managerial career with a 2,003-2,029 record, good enough for a .497 win percentage.

So Bochy certainly polished off a six-pack or two as well in his quarter-century as an MLB manager.

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

Giants' Gabe Kapler has embarrassing moment in extra-innings blowout

Giants' Gabe Kapler has embarrassing moment in extra-innings blowout

Gabe Kapler's first experience with MLB's quirky new extra-innings rule was one he'll never forget, for all the wrong reasons. 

The Giants completely unraveled in the 10th inning, giving up six runs in an eventual 12-7 loss to the Padres, with an embarrassing moment for Kapler and his new staff mixed into the middle of the carnage. Kapler came out to remove Tyler Rogers with four runs already in, but because pitching coach Andrew Bailey had just been out to the mound, Rogers was not allowed to be removed. He was called back from the dugout to face one more batter. 

The moment brought back memories of two previous screwups, one that Kapler's predecessor caught and one that Kapler made himself. 

One of Bruce Bochy's finest regular season moments came in 2010 when he caught Don Mattingly turning around and going back to the mound for what counted as a second visit, causing the umpires to remove Jonathan Broxton in a game the Giants would go on to win. One of Kapler's lowest moments in his first stint as a manager came in his first series, when he called for a reliever -- Hoby Milner -- who wasn't even warming up. The umpires took pity on Milner and did let him get a few tosses in for the sake of his health, but Kapler reportedly received a letter from MLB for his decision that day. 

Kapler came to San Francisco hoping to leave bullpen management questions in his past, and he generally pushed the right buttons through the first six games this season, particularly in two wins over the Dodgers over the weekend. That wasn't the case Thursday, and he started his postgame press conference with an explanation.

"That was just a mental screw-up on my part," Kapler said. "I've been around the game for a long time and I just had a lapse in memory in the dugout. We were talking about a lot of different things and I popped out there and went and got him and obviously that was just a mental screwup on my part. I just wanted to own that. It's 100 percent my responsibility."

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

Kapler also apologized to Rogers, who was the one left hanging. In the worst outing of his career, the right-hander already had made it back to the dugout when the umpires informed the Giants of the mistake. Rogers stood and stared out at the meeting on the mound for a few seconds, then walked back out for one more pitch, a squeeze bunt that gave the Padres their fifth run of an inning that started with a runner on second. 

"Gabe is a stand-up guy and when he makes a mistake, he'll be the first one to say it," Roger said. "I told him it's OK. If I would have just pitched a little better, he wouldn't have had to do that."

Rogers had an easy ninth, and when the game went to extras he became the first Giant to experience the runner-on-second rule, which is designed to speed up games in this season being played during a pandemic. He walked Manny Machado on a blown 3-1 call and then gave up a single to Tommy Pham that brought the placed runner home. 

Trevor Gott was warming up, but Kapler stuck with Rogers. He drilled a batter and gave up two more singles, and when Austin Hedges walked up to the plate with no outs, Bailey came out for a meeting that allowed Rico Garcia a bit more time to get loose. When Bailey returned to the dugout, Hedges dug in and got ready. But Kapler -- who has tended to jog out for pitching changes -- left the dugout and walked towards the mound, signaling for Garcia with his right arm. 

Because Bailey and Kapler had gone out back-to-back, Rogers was sent back out during the commercial break. 

"Gabe came and got the ball from me so I walked into the dugout, that's about all it was," Rogers said. "They told me I had to go back out. No big deal. You just roll with it."

Rogers gave up a fifth run before departing for good -- legally, this time. Garcia finished off the inning, and the Giants brought their own placed runner home in the bottom of the frame. But it was far too little, too late, and didn't distract from a difficult moment for a manager trying to prove that he was the right choice. 

[RELATED: Kapler explains why Giants sent Davis to Sacramento camp]

The Giants were off to a solid 3-3 start entering the night, and they wiped out a five-run deficit to send this one to extras. That 10th inning was tough to swallow, though, and it brought back some bad memories for the new manager.

"I think the most important thing is I just own it and take responsibility for it," Kapler said. "And don't make the same mistake twice."