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How the Giants started hitting again



Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 Giants were defined by resilience, a word that was inescapable around the club.

“We just have a group of guys that never say die and keep fighting no matter what the situation is,” came from Brandon Crawford, though really any and every Giant has said words to the same effect.

“Resiliency,” though, is not a tangible baseball skill. It’s not football, where sheer force of will matters; each time a hitter returns to the batter’s box, he’s trying his best to get on base. Extra determination can hurt and break hitters out of mindsets.

So when the myth that is dogged perseverance is removed, what the 2020 Giants had is a lineup that was both powerful and maneuverable, a deep set of options that enabled them to get to pitchers, especially later in games. If there is a mentality to credit, it’s the one of ignoring pitches outside of their hot zones and waiting for ones that come to them, which lays the praise at the hitting coaches’ feet.

Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind changed the way the Giants hitters approached at-bats, especially with two strikes. The Giants never came out of their mindset of only pouncing on pitches they could damage, even if it meant watching a borderline pitch become strike three.

Granted, the 2020 Giants had better options at the plate than a year prior, but the numbers are stark. In 2019 with two strikes, the Giants batted .163, the fifth worst in baseball. Their .259 two-strike slugging percentage was also fifth worst. Their 7.7 walk percentage with two strikes was sixth worst.

In a year when everything else changed, so did the two-strike numbers. The 2020 Giants hit 32 homers with two strikes, tied for the fourth most in baseball. Their .196 batting average was the best in MLB. Mike Yastrzemski’s eight two-strike dingers were tied for second most in baseball. Wilmer Flores had seven.

Early in the season, Flores mentioned the Giants’ staff was trying to break him out of his two-strike habits; traditionally, he would shorten his swing to more ensure contact. They were OK with his striking out more — 16.9 percent of his plate appearances, up from 10.9 percent last year — because it meant he hit more homers this year (12) in 55 games than he did last year (nine) in 89 games.

What has been even more plainly obvious around the club’s hitting is the resurrections of the longtime Giants. Crawford went from one of the worst hitters in all of baseball back to a solid-hitting shortstop. Brandon Belt’s OPS rose by 273 points. Crawford retooled his swing over the offseason with those coaching minds, then kept adjusting his stroke during the season. Belt’s long-debated batting eye was praised and not questioned, the staff reinforcing his approach.

“The changes that I made with my swing and everything this past offseason — I think it showed that it worked,” Crawford, whose OPS rose from .654 to .792, said after the Giants were eliminated Sunday. “The work that I put in in the spring, even into the first couple weeks of the season, the changes that I made, I think there is an obvious improvement there. I’m excited to continue going to bat and hopefully have a full season with that swing next year.”

The approach and execution were improved, as well as the situations the Giants’ staff placed its batters. Game No. 60 began with Darin Ruf in left field and Donovan Solano out of the lineup, the former to ensure he saw an at-bat against a lefty, the latter to ensure he saw a later-game at-bat against a lefty. Neither worked, but the process as a whole did.

The Giants leaned heavily on platoons for much of the campaign, though they had to break out of many as it went along, finding that players such as Crawford, Belt, Solano, Flores and Mauricio Dubon had to find their way into the lineup or field. Once Gabe Kapler settled on the Alex Dickerson-Ruf left field platoon, the position (and the club, really) took off. Dickerson, facing mostly righties, finished with a 157 OPS plus (an average hitter is 100); Ruf, facing mostly lefties, was at 143.

“We won a lot of games because of the way we structured our lineup,” Evan Longoria said over Zoom.

The scouting reports, too, were noticeably better. The Giants batters met with the coaches before each game, rather than before each series, absorbing the latest finds about the pitching they were about to see.

“We had a really good idea of what pitchers were trying to do this year,” Crawford said.

What it all added up to was 299 runs, the eighth most in baseball and 4.98 per game. In 2019, the Giants scored 678, the third least in baseball and 4.19 per game.

There was no postseason for the Giants. But offensive progress was a goal that was accomplished, even if some of the finds were on the coaching staff and not roster.