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How the Giants’ forgotten slugger is slowly climbing his way back

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

SACRAMENTO — It started with Steven Duggar, Connor Joe and Michael Reed. Gerardo Parra was mixed in. Remember Aaron Altherr? You do remember Mac Williamson. What other outfielders have worn a jersey for the Giants this year?

A couple Mikes in Gerber and Yastrzemski. Both a Tyler Austin and an Austin Slater. Yangervis Solarte made it to May, and Joey Rickard is the newest addition. A few when-need-be’s in Brandon Belt and Stephen Vogt. Kevin Pillar and Alex Dickerson have been the best of the lot.

Farhan Zaidi will grasp at the most slippery of straws, will search under the heaviest of rocks to find talent. It’s a wonder — and a testament to how far off he looked last season — that Chris Shaw is still craning his neck toward San Francisco from Sacramento.

Shaw was, as recently as 2017, the No. 2 prospect in the system, a 2015 first-round pick whose power can play anywhere, a natural first baseman who was taught to play left field, a more powerful heir to Belt one day.

He steadily rose through the ranks, hitting Sacramento in 2017 and the majors last season. The culmination of a lifetime journey through baseball is when it all went wrong.

The Giants gave him a look, and Shaw made them look away. He struck out 23 times in 54 at-bats, launching a single homer and batting .158 in a September to forget.

“I think last year I got away from just being a hitter,” Shaw told KNBR recently from Sacramento. “I thought about just hitting home runs. That really put me into a lot of bad situations, took me out of the mindset of who I need to be to be a competitive hitter.”

The lesson wasn’t learned by March. Shaw showed little in spring training this year, and in an organization with a new ethos that any talent is tap-able talent, the 25-year-old was buried all the way back in Double-A Richmond.

“It was an interesting break out of spring training. I heard a lot of different things [from the Giants],” Shaw said.

Mostly, he heard they wanted him to be more selective at the plate, to see more pitches and only attack the ones he could do damage to. They wanted the walks to go up and the strikeouts to shrink.

In 37 games at Richmond in 2017, Shaw struck out 16.9 percent of the time. In 101 games at Sacramento last year, the number skyrocketed to 34.1 percent. In his limited time with the Giants, it was 37.1 percent.

The Giants sent him a message, and so far it’s yielding results. Shaw has killed pitching both at Double- and (since his late-May promotion) Triple-A, striking out a combined 26 percent of the time (99 in 384 at-bats). He’s walked 35 times in 428 plate appearances. He had 28 walks combined last year in 488 appearances.

“I think about swinging at what I want to swing at. If you’re making good swing decisions, you’re going to walk and you’re not going to strike out,” said Shaw, a 6-foot-3, 226-pound classically drawn-up slugger. “It comes down to staying disciplined. I know what parts of the zone I crush. I have that information. I know where I slug the most. Until I get to two strikes, that’s when I’m hunting.

“I know I crush certain parts of the zone. Unless a guy doesn’t have great command, I know I might not be able to look in that zone. So what I’ll do is look at the next part of the zone that I slug the next highest in. I’m really happy with the results.”

Though the numbers feature the same asterisks that accompany all Triple-A and major league statistics this year, Shaw has mashed. Between Richmond and Sacramento, he’s slashing .292/.360/.539 with 22 home runs.

They’re the type of numbers that get you noticed, even if that doesn’t mean immediately called up. Which Shaw has learned.

“I think last year, he saw a lot of breaking balls, a lot of pitches out of the zone, and he showed some impatience at times,” said Sacramento manager Dave Brundage, who pointed to the ease of information on hitters nowadays, with major league teams possessing ready-made scouting reports on Triple-A players, too. “So, they know. And they’ll expose your weaknesses. And then it’s your turn to adjust to them.”

To Brundage, it was pitchers figuring Shaw out before he could adjust. Kyle Haines, the team’s director of player development, had a separate, interesting theory for why Shaw, a Massachusetts native and Boston College grad, may have struggled out of the gate.

“With the high-round tag on him, it probably put some expectations on him that he would move fast. But I think some guys like this develop later,” Haines said over the phone. “Guys that went to college in the Northeast or high school in the Northeast — they’re still making up a lot of ground. Cold-weather area, you move fast through the minor leagues. Sometimes you see these guys develop a little later.”

Recently, it seemed as if Shaw’s time had finally come again, but the Giants chose Rickard instead. Sixteen Giants have manned the outfield before Shaw this season.

It has helped that Shaw has cheered rather than sulked — “I couldn’t be happier for a guy like Yaz, he’s been in the minor leagues forever. … Slate’s been my roommate forever, to see him go up there, it’s awesome.” But the No. 2, promising prospect is now the No. 21 forgotten prospect.

There’s a good chance his next real chance doesn’t come this year. But Belt will not be safe this offseason, and Shaw will have another spring training to make another impression.

To Shaw, though, the questions about the future are a bit much. He’s doing OK in the present.

“The way I look at it is I can’t control that stuff. And I’m having a blast down here playing baseball every day,” Shaw said. “Do I want to get another shot? Yes, who the hell wouldn’t? I want to get back up there. But I wouldn’t say any situation up there is frustrating.

“They’re winning. It’s cool to be able to see that. I hope I just get the chance to help at some point because I really think I can.”


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