Giants' young hitters surpassing not-so-giant expectations
No matter how much baseball we watch, no matter how much we think we know, we’re always surprised by something. Whether it’s the underperformance or the ability to exceed expectations of a certain player or team, every new season always brings about something that makes one wonder how it’s happening. It seems the San Francisco Giants are able to repeatedly be that team — though they do seem to limit it to some sort of even-year magic.
Of course, the even- and odd-year stuff holds no water; this is a legitimately strong team. When they rebounded from a 3-9 start to get to 10 games over .500 in late May, I decided to take a look at what was going on with them this season. Surprisingly, after years of seeing a dominant pitching staff carry the Giants into the playoffs, it was the offense that was the strength of this year’s team.
“Surely this can’t last,” I said to myself. Yes, Buster Posey is a former MVP and Hunter Pence’s return from injury certainly helps things, but was Brandon Belt actually going to deliver some consistency after years of promise? Guys like Matt Duffy, Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik were far exceeding the offensive potential anyone outside of the Giants organization could have possibly projected for them. I could only assume they’d come crashing back to Earth.
Sure enough, by early July, the Giants had scuffled and found themselves back at .500 — the odd-year struggles were back. But even during a down period, the offense never really went away, and the Giants charged back comfortably over .500 and into the playoff race. And Duffy, Crawford and Panik? If anything, they’ve gotten better since May. Panik hit the DL on August 1st, slashing .309/.374/.443 when he went on the shelf. Duffy has an impressive .307 TAv, putting him firmly in the discussion for NL Rookie of the Year, and Crawford has tapped into power that no one realized he ever had. He’s blown by his previous career-high 10 home runs with 19 through 114 games with a .225 ISO, good for 11th in the NL, and easily tops among all shortstops in the game.
While none of the trio ever found themselves on a top-100 list, Crawford and Panik were at least talked about as legitimate candidates to stick in the big leagues for one reason or another. Duffy, on the other hand, was completely off the prospect radar despite posting an OPS well above .800 in his two full seasons in the minors in 2013 and 2014.
“I think it’s always fun to prove people wrong and it’s fun to prove myself right, because I always believed I could do it, whatever other people said,” said Duffy, who found himself on the Giants' roster during the stretch run last summer and getting some at-bats in the playoffs. “But at the same time, I think it’s kind of an advantage to fly under that radar a little bit because you get overlooked in the scouting report, you get overlooked in whatever it is. My old coach from college talked to me this offseason and he talked about when I faced Jason Vargas, because Vargas went to Long Beach State as well. And (Vargas) said, ‘Yeah, we spent like 10 seconds on him in the scouting report just not even thinking about him.’ And I did well that game. But it’s not really at the forefront of my mind, thinking I need to prove those guys wrong. I’m just going out there and playing my game and going out and helping the team win. If I prove some people right, great, and if I prove them wrong, so be it. Everybody has their opinion.”
While Duffy was overlooked for a short while, he admitted that was no longer the case. With great teammates who lead by example like Posey and Pence, he watches how they work and tries to learn how to recognize when the opposition has made an adjustment, and to react to that adjustment as quickly as possible. But when asked why so many offensive players in this organization are able to suddenly break through their projected ceilings once they reach the big leagues, Duffy was quick to answer.
“Bam-Bam [Hensley Meulens], our hitting coach, he needs to get a lot of credit for that,” Duffy said. “He does a great job of knowing when it’s a good time to work hard and knowing, hey, we got a long stretch coming up, take it easy, maybe it’s best if you just relax, play the game, and don’t think too much. And other times it’s let’s get in the cage, let’s work on your hips, firing, staying on your legs, whatever it is — it’s all on an individual basis, obviously. But he deserves a ton of credit in helping out improvement and our development as players.”
Meulens said he’s worked on Duffy's hands having a little bit of a drift forward during his at-bats — something he still does but is correcting little by little. But right now it’s not significantly hurting Duffy’s performance, and the two continue to work to rectify the issue and improve the rookie’s performance.
“I have a different philosophy for every guy because they’re all different,” Meulens said about working with the team’s offense. “I try to give them what’s necessary for each game against each different pitcher. For the young guys coming up, there’s a lot of information — probably an information overload. I try to keep them away from it and get them to realize that the success they had to get here, they should continue to use it, unless there is something obvious that I want them to see, then I’ll show them that. I try to keep it simple: I try to have them get a feel for the game, and get a feel for the at-bat and try to make in-at-bat adjustments to what they see, instead of looking at all the numbers and overthinking what’s coming. That’s one approach we have with basically everybody, but especially the young guys.”
Information overload is something many coaches talk about when trying to reconcile the old-school principles of coaching and the new-age philosophy of implementing advanced statistics and numbers into the game. While the latter is undoubtedly important and something coaches (especially the manager) should be aware of, Meulens’ point to give it to players (especially young ones) in small doses if at all, is important to recognize. While the numbers are important and they may come in handy in deciding what adjustments to make, how these things are communicated to players is the key.
Perhaps Meulens’ most surprising pupil is Crawford. The slick-fielding shortstop was called up because the Giants were desperate for someone to man the position. While Crawford’s bat wasn’t ready, his glove certainly was.
“We knew his bat wasn’t (ready),” Meulens told me. “Just like Duffy, he had a big glide and drift forward with a big leg kick. He was getting beat with every fastball. We gradually slowed that down to where his foot was closer to the ground; his hands were way up and they’re by his shoulders now, so he can just pick it up and go, a much shorter route to the pitch. He’s loading correctly now, meaning that he’s getting to his backside and he’s able to explode — that’s why you see the power numbers.”
The changes have led to Crawford’s OPS jumping every year in the big leagues, with this season’s .821 marking a career high. Part of Meulens’ philosophy is to attack fastballs and avoid getting to two strikes, since the advantage clearly goes to the pitcher when that’s the case. Meulens says Crawford understands the strike zone better now and is more aggressive, which — along with the mechanical changes — has really helped him tap into his power. After setting a career-high walk rate for a full season in 2014 (10.5 percent) while mostly avoiding offering at pitches outside of the zone, Crawford is taking a different tack this year, swinging more often in general (his 52.3 percent swing rate is the highest of his career) at pitches both in and out of the strike zone. While his contact rate is no higher than it was in the past, the approach is working for Crawford.
“The more you play in the big leagues, the more you're going to get comfortable,” Crawford said. “And the more you have success, the more comfortable you're going to get. I think with winning a couple World Series, the postseason experience, and having a little bit more success each year, it gives you more confidence and I think that's a big part of hitting. But that being said, I also worked hard with Bam-Bam and our hitting coaches in the cages.”
And while Meulens gives all the credit to the players for putting in the work and having an open mind to his suggestions, he can’t help but notice that there’s a trend of players breaking through their ceilings on the Giants.
“For every one of them, Buster is probably the one guy that everybody expected to be doing what he’s doing,” Meulens said. “And I’m proud, I get excited. It’s gratifying just to see them not only get to their potential, but maximize it, exceeding what people are expecting from them. And there’s more in there for Belt, there’s more in there for Panik, there’s more in there for Duffy. These guys are just showing that they can be consistent and now they’re ready to be All-Stars like Buster and Crawford. Pride, yes, but more gratifying than anything.”
One player who was already a finished product when he arrived in San Francisco is Hunter Pence. But though he may have already known what to do at the plate didn’t mean he wasn’t aware of the impact his hitting coach has had on the team.
“Bam-Bam’s amazing at what he does,” Pence said. “He works differently with everyone because not everyone works the same. It’s a very difficult position to master and he’s unbelievable at helping everyone in little ways here and there. You gotta give a lot of credit to Bam Bam, to [manager Bruce Bochy], to the scouts for identifying that talent that others didn’t see. And to the organization for creating a fertile ground for them to flourish in.”
Crawford echoed Pence’s sentiments that the credit goes beyond the players and Meulens, pointing to the scouts for being able to not only identify quality talent, but a certain attitude and mindset that’s consistent throughout the organization. Everyone in that clubhouse seems to agree that there’s been a culture of accountability — no matter your age or level of experience — built in San Francisco.
“I think most of this team is just good at accepting new guys, bringing them in and treating them like they're veterans,” Crawford said. “We don't treat the rookies any different than the older guys. I think there's a comfort in that, coming up as a rookie, and you can just go out there and play your game.”
Duffy, who is still technically a rookie, came up to the big club late last season. Immediately upon his arrival, the atmosphere that Crawford pointed out was made clear.
“I remember my first day, Hunter Pence came up to me and said congrats,” Duffy said. “It didn’t have the tone of nice to meet you, whatever. He told me, ‘We’re gonna need you, you have to believe that you’re going to help this team. That’s the reason you’re here, you’re here to contribute and you’re here to help us win games.’ It’s not like you’re filler, you’re not a nobody. You come here right away and they expect you to strap it on and get going. That’s something that was cool because for me it made me get into more of a competitive state of mind instead of kind of feeling my way through being the new guy. I immediately said all right, let’s go and compete and get after these guys. That’s something, it’s an attitude, it’s a big thing. Hunter’s a driving force behind our energy. Everybody knows it’s going to take everybody, and when you have that belief, you have the confidence to go out there as a rookie and say, ‘Alright, I can do this because my teammates think I can. If they can, why can’t I?’”
But being the leader he is in a clubhouse that’s grown accustomed to winning, Pence wasn’t about to act like he’s the reason for anyone’s success.
“I take zero credit for that,” Pence stated. “[Duffy’s] talented and he’s a good hitter. He knows what he’s doing and he’s smart. He’s just a talented hitter who’s brought a lot to our lineup. I’m proud of this group and the amount of work and effort and will power that these guys have. Every day my goal is to just give as much as I can to help to win. I have no pride in anything other than, I just enjoy being a part of their efforts and being able to give as much as I can.”
All of this has led to a group of players who consistently outperform expectations. Whether it’s the team’s record, individual accomplishments, or the three World Series victories in five years (with their eyes now set on a fourth) they continue to surprise outsiders who struggle to pinpoint how this team succeeds.
Some may have seen this team getting swept in a four-game set against the young, upstart Cubs as a sign that their playoff hopes were starting to fade. However, this is an experienced group that’s seen it all over the years.
“We've done that before and come out of it fine,” Crawford said. “We take it game by game — I know that’s such a cliché — but that’s what we do in this clubhouse. We’re not worried about the last few games.”
Being around that group during that short slide, one wouldn’t be able to tell that they were in the midst of an extended losing streak and were falling out of a playoff spot. No heads were hanging, whether it was coaches, veterans, or rookies; the entire group knew they’d bounce back. And Crawford’s words rung true as the team left Chicago and proceeded to win five of their next six games. The Giants may not be able to overtake the Pirates and Cubs, but one thing is clear: They’re not going to make it easy on either of them. This group finds a way to get things done; they find a way to surprise.