SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Justin Viele had been on the job for one day and officially a Giants hitting coach for zero days. Yet, he was comfortable enough to become less coach and more GM.
In the hours after the Giants extended the offer and before they announced he would be joining the staff, Viele saw the White Sox nontendered Yolmer Sanchez.
He sent Gabe Kapler, his new boss, a text.
“Eighty human being,” Viele remembered of the message, referencing the top of the scouting scale. “Would be a great guy to have on the team. His swing is getting better. … You can really rely on the defense and baserunning, and you can get more out of the swing, I’m hoping.”
“He was definitely invested [in Sanchez],” Kapler said of Viele, one of two Giants hitting coaches. “One of the things that I respect a lot about Justin is he knows when to use his voice and when to leverage his voice, and he had a ton of conviction in going after Yolmer.”
The Giants listened, and soon a reigning Gold Glove winner was in major league camp on a minor league deal, doing the same thing he’s been doing all offseason: working with Viele. The biggest change that spring training brought involved the two now wearing the same uniforms.
First Sanchez hired Viele, then Viele helped employ Sanchez, and now a Dodgers hitting coach and White Sox second baseman are both wearing orange and black.
For both parties to be happily working beside each other, Sanchez had to get mad.
He was frustrated for so much of last season, when the power drained out of his bat. He hit a pair of home runs in 555 plate appearances, becoming a slap hitter without much punch. From 2017-19, his slugging percentage plunged from .413 to .372 to .321. His glove still dazzled, but it’s hard to carry a player with a .638 OPS — the third worst in all of baseball among qualified hitters.
“I’m better than what I did last year. I just want to show there’s more in the swing,” Sanchez told KNBR this week from Scottsdale Stadium. “That was a bad year.”
For the first time, he sought outside help and asked his agent for a swing doctor, preferably in Arizona because that’s where Sanchez calls home.
Paco Figueroa, the first-base coach for the Phillies, has a friend in Sanchez’s agent’s agency. Figueroa heard about Sanchez’s request and thought of Viele, his pal who was a minor league batting coach in the Dodgers organization — and who happens to live in Arizona. As serendipity would have it, the Dodgers and White Sox share a spring complex. About two or three weeks before Thanksgiving, they got to work with no idea their intersecting paths would not soon be straightened.
Viele began digging into Sanchez’s swing and found a hitter with terrific bat control and contact skills — he struck out 117 times last season — but who struggled to get the ball in the air with power. Sanchez, a switch-hitter, has a slight leg kick but has stayed close to the ground through his swing.
The two would work for hours in the cage, Sanchez a willing and able student who had plenty of questions and feedback of his own, Viele a coach who would be texting videos to Sanchez with swing thoughts through the night.
Because they’re both Giants, the process is ongoing, but both are pleased with the early returns.
“We did a lot of getting him to move a little more efficiently. He was more of — get the foot down, put it in play. That works for a lot of guys. He doesn’t miss much, he puts the ball in play a lot. He was accomplishing what he wanted to do,” said Viele, who said the tweaked movement and altered bat path are the biggest differences in the swing.
“When he gets into his load, his gather, negative move, whatever you call it — he’s off the ground. And he has something going back to go forward. That was a concept he didn’t have throughout his career. He was more, get it down, glide into the baseball.”
Sanchez, while he had shown some pop in previous seasons, was never a flyball hitter. Last season his groundball rate actually was down, from 48.8 in 2018 to 43.2, according to Fangraphs. But the home-run count dropped from 2017’s 12 to 2018’s eight to 2019’s two.
“I believe in the work I’ve put in this offseason,” said the 27-year-old Sanchez, a solid bet for Opening Day second baseman. “I’m really confident, and I can’t wait to start the games to show the work I’ve done.”
The Giants, with Viele’s advice, were the first team to begin talking to Sanchez after Chicago nontendered him Nov. 25. They did not think he would transform into a slugger, but a vacuum glove up the middle with good bat-to-ball skills and a bit more pop can turn Sanchez into a “stud,” his manager said.
“It doesn’t take a huge leap forward for him to be a productive and valuable major league player for us,” Kapler said.
The Giants, who bring back a malleable Mauricio Dubon, also have Wilmer Flores and Donovan Solano roaming the infield looking for spots. But Sanchez, who can be moved around, sees himself as a second baseman and was assured he could compete in camp for the starting job. If he succeeds, it would reflect as much on teacher (and recruiter) as student.
“I feel comfortable,” Sanchez said. “I know that this year’s going to be way better.”