Hunter Pence

Nine observations from Giants' .500 homestand vs. Padres, Rangers

Nine observations from Giants' .500 homestand vs. Padres, Rangers

Gabe Kapler went out of his way over the last week to stand by Hunter Pence. He was asked about the struggling veteran -- who started the year 0-for-23 -- every day, and he always was positive. During one Zoom session with reporters, Kapler answered a question about another Giant and then pivoted to talk about Pence's work in the cage. 

"I have 100 percent confidence that Hunter Pence's track record is predictive of what's to come for him," Kapler said. 

The reason the Giants were so confident is quality of contact, which has become an overriding theme for the new hitting coaches. If you square three balls up and they're all hit right at guys ... I mean, there's nothing else you can do. That's what Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind preach, and Pence's metrics showed he wasn't completely out of whack. 

Pence actually is fourth on the team with an average exit velocity of 89 mph, right between early MVP candidates Donovan Solano (89.4) and Mike Yastrzemski (88.6). His launch angle is pretty similar to Solano's, too, and he's second to Brandon Crawford in percentage of batted balls (44) hit 95+ mph. 

By expected batting average -- which is based on contact -- Pence is at .215, which isn't great, but certainly isn't anywhere near the .038 average he carries right now. There's a reason the Giants are sticking with him, and he rewarded that faith a bit with a 403-foot triple, a walk, and a run Sunday. 

"It hasn't been that tough to stay positive for me, personally," Pence said. "I think there's a lot of positives because the team is playing well, and so it's been kind of easy."

The Giants went 3-3 on the homestand, showing a habit of coming back late in games, but also that their starting pitching is kind of a problem. Here are eight more takeaways from the first homestand of the year ... 

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--- Look, this won't fully last for Solano and Yastrzemski, who are BABIP gods right now. No reason not to enjoy it, though. Solano finished the first full week of the season as the MLB leader in batting average (.484) and NL leader in RBI (13). Yastrzemski is tied for the league lead with 10 runs and leads the majors with 11 walks. Both of them have a .500 OBP. Yastrzemski feels like an easy choice for NL Player of the Week. 

--- This Rockies series is a homecoming for Rico Garcia, the young right-hander who has been an early surprise out of the bullpen. Garcia made two appearances for the Rockies last year, allowing seven runs in six innings. They had taken him in the 30th round of the draft in 2016. The Giants signed Garcia as a minor league free agent and hoped that his stuff would play better out of the pen. Well ... it definitely has. 

Garcia averaged 90 mph in those two appearances last year but is at 94 in five scoreless relief outings this year, and he was bumping 97-98 on Saturday night. The command has been a little iffy, but it wasn't a huge issue for Garcia in the minors. Perhaps there's an explanation for that, too. 

"In watching Rico pitch (Saturday) I said to myself, I hope Rico is really happy with the 97 and doesn't try to get more, because I think when a pitcher gets to that level of really improving that velocity it can be encouraging and you try to throw it a little bit harder and you give up some of your command as a result," Kapler said. 

--- It was an impressive homestand from Evan Longoria, who didn't get to face live pitching for a couple of weeks as he rehabbed an oblique strain. Longoria was 6-for-14 in four games with two doubles and a long homer. His homer Sunday left the bat at 108.8 mph and traveled 416 feet. So much for rust. 

--- Tyler Heineman has done a nice job at the plate and seems to be a pretty good pitch-framer, but there have been some defensive issues. He was part of a botched rundown Saturday night and had two catcher's interference calls in his first week as the starting catcher. Kapler went into depth about what's going on.

"Early in the Dodgers series we noticed that he was considerably behind the plate, and for that reason we lost a couple of strikes, especially on big-breaking ball guys, 12-6 breaking ball guys," he said. "With (those pitchers) we want him to move up behind the plate, get closer to the plate, so he can stay with the curveball and get up underneath it and get it called for a strike. 

"We've asked him to make that adjustment, not so much on east-west guys, slider guys whose ball moves more horizontally, but definitely on that 12-6 curveball. So he's just getting used to that and sometimes that development comes with hiccups and that's why that's happening."

Heineman didn't have any issues in his last couple of appearances. 

--- Tyler Anderson had a really strong relief performance against the Padres and then gave up a three-run homer to Joey Gallo on Sunday. He's a candidate to start against his former teammates this week in Denver with Drew Smyly now on the injured list. Anderson threw just two innings Sunday. 

Losing Smyly is going to hurt. He was Kapler's best starter so far, and there's no way to survive this road trip if Logan Webb and Kevin Gausman don't show more efficiency and Samardzija keeps lacking swing-and-miss stuff. 

[RELATED: MLB power rankings: Where Giants, A's sit after 11 days]

--- Anderson had the weirdest stat of the homestand. He picked off two Padres in one inning, becoming the first Giants pitcher to pull that off since Madison Bumgarner in the first inning against the Reds on June 27, 2014. 

--- Six different Giants hit a homer during the six-game homestand, and Yastrzemski hit two. They weren't cheapies, either. It might be too early to say that it's much more of a hitter's park, but there's no doubt the ball is flying if you pull it down the right field line.

Full credit to the great Mike Krukow. He was all over that in the first exhibition game, pointing out that right field had a new jetstream because the archways have been closed off. I don't know how the science behind this works, but it's clear he was right. 

--- The quote of the year thus far comes from, not surprisingly, Samardzija. He was asked about players having "a beer" together after games but doing so while adhering to social distancing rules. He repeated the words "a beer" and shook his head.

"Plural," he said. "Go with plural."

Nine observations from Giants' surprising four-game split with Dodgers

Nine observations from Giants' surprising four-game split with Dodgers

So, what was less likely on Sunday? That Darin Ruf, a big man with one stolen base in his career, would swipe second to set up a crucial insurance run? Or that Darin Ruf, a man signed to be a bench bat and platoon first baseman, would crash through an open bullpen gate while making a catch in left field?

"I would give -- going into that game -- both a pretty, pretty low probability," Ruf said Sunday night, smiling. 

Both were key moments in another nice night for Ruf, signed out of the KBO over the offseason. He started both games against left-handers this weekend and was having such strong at-bats that Gabe Kapler didn't even go to his trusted platoons. Kapler said he even hopes Ruf becomes more than a matchup play.

"We see him as an asset against left-handed pitching, but he's a super tough at-bat against righties as well," Kapler said. 

Ruf has three hits, a walk, two RBI, a run and that stolen base through two starts, which is one of the early positives for the Giants.

Here are some more highs and lows from a series that ended up being a pretty solid split

--- Kapler named Johnny Cueto his opening day starter a couple weeks ago, but the other three starters in this series were announced the day of the game. So it stood out when Kapler opened his Zoom call after Sunday's win by announcing that Jeff Samardzija will start Tuesday and Cueto will start Wednesday. Thursday is still TBD.

"I think in this particular case it's pretty simple," he said when asked about the differing approach to the Padres series. "We know that we are going to have two traditional starts at the top of the series. We knew we had a traditional start at the top of the Dodgers series, which is why we announced Cueto, and now we know we have two traditional starts at the outset of the San Diego series so that's why we're announcing Samardzija and Cueto."

The staff very clearly didn't feel good about Samardzija facing the Dodgers, but the Padres are considerably more right-handed, and thus a better matchup.

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

--- Hunter Pence is hitless on the season and the at-bats haven't been promising, but both Ruf and Mauricio Dubon went out of their way to credit Pence for how positive he kept it after those first two games. 

"Thanks to Hunter, thanks to veteran guys, we kept a level head after Friday's game," Dubon said. 

--- Dubon started 0-for-10 but got on the board with an infield single. His next hit, a clean shot to left, scored a run. Dubon said he wasn't worried about the slow start. 

"I got excited when I heard the reaction in the dugout," he said. "It's a huge relief. I'm a good hitter. It was going to happen, stuff like that is going to happen, 0-for-10s are going to happen."

--- If you're in a fantasy league, Trevor Gott might be an easy way to a few saves over the next 58 games. Tyler Rogers is the versatile weapon in the bullpen and Kapler is going to use him as often as he can, but that might be in the sixth or seventh most nights when the heart of the order might be coming up. 

Gott is your more traditional one-inning guy, and Kapler said he's open to a player grabbing the closer role. It was telling that Tony Watson didn't come in for lefty Max Muncy with a runner on and two outs in the ninth. Gott struck Muncy out. 

--- The defense was much better on Sunday night, but over the course of the series, it was pretty brutal. That's definitely not what Kapler and Kai Correa expected. An early thing to file away and watch: Wilmer Flores' throws have been an issue. Kapler said it was like a hitter trying to do too much at the plate.

"I think he's going to be fine," Kapler said. "He's a veteran player with a track record of success. His throws will improve."

--- Jaylin Davis avoided a double play in the fourth inning Sunday by getting down the line at 29.6 feet per second. Anything at or above 30 is elite. As Kapler says all the time, he really does have all the tools. 

--- Dany Jimenez made his big league debut Thursday, coming in when the season opener blew up on Rogers. He walked Joc Pederson and A.J. Pollock, gave up a run on a fielder's choice, and then walked Muncy to bring another run home. Jimenez at least ended his outing on a high note, striking out Mookie Betts on a curveball.

The Rule 5 pick is a two-pitch guy and the Dodgers didn't seem to have any issues picking him up. Jimenez hit 95 mph with his fastball but averaged 93. He threw a dozen curveballs, most of which dropped out of the zone.

[RELATED: Kapler's bullpen use helps Giants earn split]

Jimenez didn't pitch again in the series, but he certainly is worth watching this week. The Giants have to cut down from 30 to 28 players two weeks into the season, and they need to find out more about the young right-hander. 

--- Finally, a reminder of how weird this season is. With expanded playoffs, if the season ended today, the Giants and Dodger would get the last two spots in the NL. At 2-2, they're tied for seventh and eighth in the league. That's all it takes in 2020!

Giants' Gabe Kapler turns to Hunter Pence for 2020 Opening Day speech

Giants' Gabe Kapler turns to Hunter Pence for 2020 Opening Day speech

After nine months of waiting, Gabe Kapler woke up Thursday morning ready to finally manage his first game with the Giants. His first big move was a smart one. 

Kapler said he gave a speech to the 30 players who made the Opening Day roster and gathered at Dodger Stadium, but he kept it short. Then he turned it over to Hunter Pence, because that's kind of what you do around here when you want to fire a group up.

"He's always good at inspiring people. Hunter has some of the most consistent positive energy of anybody and he never wavers," Kapler said before Thursday's game. "We just thought it was good for them to hear from one of their teammates, a guy who has been around Major League Baseball for a long time. He has seen it from a number of angles, he's coming off a great season, and is somebody the younger players on the team really look up to."

[RELATED: Giants' playoff odds improve with last-minute rule change]

Pence, who is in Thursday's lineup as the DH, re-signed with the organization in early February after a strong year with the Rangers, quickly returning to a leadership position in San Francisco. He has been a resource for young Giants in both camps, and members of the inexperienced coaching staff also have talked about how much they lean on Pence, who is entering his 14th big league season. 

This is Pence's eighth season with the Giants, and during his first stint "The Reverend" became famous for his speeches that helped push the Giants through a 2012 title run that was full of comebacks. Kapler, not surprisingly, had done his homework. He said Pence did a good job.

"We were in a clubhouse space, close quarters, with masks up as appropriate," Kapler said. "He didn't pull the mask down. He's got a voice that projects very well."

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]