LOS ANGELES — Caleb Baragar never really knew why he experienced success or failure on the mound.
The Giants lefty was good enough to go pro after a college career at Indiana, started off well in the system in 2016, rose to Class-A Augusta in 2017 and struggled, then continued to sputter the next season, bouncing between the bullpen and rotation in Augusta and Double-A Richmond without much of a defined future.
So he went to school. Or rather, school came to him, in the form of a new Giants regime that emphasizes analytical data that turns pitching more into a science than art. His most important teacher, now with the title of coordinator of pitching sciences, was Matt Daniels, whom the Giants hired from Driveline before the 2019 season.
Daniels deconstructed a fastball that Baragar never quite understood. In doing so, new life was breathed into Baragar, who spent most of last season as an improving Richmond starter, who wasn’t even invited to spring training 1.0 yet earned a late invite to 2.0, who ran with the opportunity and somehow found his way onto the major league roster for the opener. It’s been a whirlwind that began with frustration and ended with the good kind of tears.
The 26-year-old got the news from a room that included Gabe Kapler, pitching coach Andrew Bailey and assistant pitching coach Ethan Katz and called his parents.
“I expected them both to cry,” Baragar said on a Zoom on Thursday. “And I ended up being the one who was crying more than both of them. It’s been such a long, crazy journey with everything I’ve gone through.”
For so long, Baragar’s eyes had been closed, throwing his fastball low in the zone because that has been a cardinal rule of baseball. His fastball always had some life, but he was ignorant about its specifics.
“Teammates in college would always joke with me,” said Baragar, another bulk option for San Francisco. “They’d be like, ‘You throw an invisi-ball. No one ever hits it — you throw it down the middle and no one hits it.’”
They began hitting it in the pros. Baragar said he entered camp in 2019 “just trying to make a team,” any team, to keep his baseball dream alive. He ended up meeting Daniels early on, who was digging into his arsenal.
Vertical break is what it sounds like: the inches a pitch moves vertically from its release point until it crosses the front of home plate. Baragar, once in the dark, sounds enlightened.
“I think my vertical breaks down like 21, 22 inches, which is pretty high. So in theory, if you were to throw a baseball and there would be just the normal effect from gravity, it would come down and slope like this,” said the 6-foot-3 southpaw. “And with a high vertical break, your fastball comes in at kind of the same plane. So my ball never really comes down, it kind of travels in the same line.
“And another thing, too, that I think helps a lot is my release height is pretty low, especially for how tall I am. I get down the mound pretty well, and I have good extension. So with a release height being really low and a high vertical break, it almost gives the effect of my fastball rising to a hitter.”
Armed with that knowledge, it became clear that he should throw the pitch higher in the zone, and his career trajectory changed dramatically. He emerged last season, rising to Triple-A Sacramento as a key component of its championship team, but not quite enough to fit into Scottsdale’s major league camp.
As the country and baseball world shut down, he began preparing for 2021. He assumed his season was done, and he worked out at the team’s facility, working on arm strength and mobility. The Giants noticed his improvement, Farhan Zaidi noting he’s gained a few ticks on the low-90s heater.
July 8 he officially was added to the pool. Two weeks later, after opening eyes in intrasquad scrimmages, he’s one of six lefty arms on the team, one Zaidi called a “pretty easy decision.”
“I just kind of came and I was ready to go, but I didn’t expect this to happen,” Baragar said. “I was just coming in and trying to showcase I put in a little bit of extra work and tried to improve on some stuff and it really paid off.”
The body followed the mind, first needing to understand how his pitches work, then honing how he can throw them.
“All the pieces of the puzzle are all coming together,” said the most surprising puzzle piece of the Giants.