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Yastrzemski love, hitting coach lure: Behind Curt Casali’s Giants connections



Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There were plenty of sources around the Giants who could place a nice word or two in Curt Casali’s ears to sell the organization. The free-agent catcher was familiar with Gabe Kapler from his Rays days; he knew plenty of the pitching staff, including Anthony DeSclafani and Kevin Gausman; there was hitting coach Donnie Ecker, who had come over from Cincinnati an offseason prior; there was the Vanderbilt contingent that was led by Mike Yastrzemski, Casali’s roommate during last season’s break between spring trainings 1.0 and 2.0.

He played in Tampa with Evan Longoria, whom he had been in touch with. That connection led him to Steven Duggar, with whom he’s been playing “Call of Duty.”

“Duggar by far” is better, Casali reported Tuesday. “I just started a couple weeks ago. I’m brutal.”

The two are now more than just virtual teammates.

The 32-year-old was introduced as a new Giants catcher Tuesday, having signed a one-year deal worth $1.5 million the day before and immediately becoming the front-runner to back up Buster Posey. He is coming home — kind of, having been born in Walnut Creek, where he spent two years, then following his father’s bedding and textile company job to Atlanta, Los Angeles and finally Connecticut, where he says he really grew up.

But home is where friends and family are, right?

“The No. 1 thing that was pulling me to San Francisco was the opportunity to be around great people,” Casali said over Zoom.

If Casali’s winding journey to San Francisco started in Walnut Creek, it jump-started in Nashville. Casali was a sophomore when high-school-senior Yastrzemski visited Vanderbilt and “we did all the things that we don’t need to talk about publicly,” Casali said.

The private parties must have won him over, Yastrzemski joining a powerhouse team that also featured Sam Selman for the same program that would bring in Tyler Beede after they were gone.

Yastrzemski and Casali were groomsmen at each other’s weddings, and just as Casali had recruited him so many years before, it was Yaz’s turn to be the adviser.

“Mike was hugely important,” said the seven-year big-leaguer. “Basically laying the land out for what I would be walking into, who I would be around. So it’s nice to have a person to kind of act as a liaison coming into a new organization.”

Comfortability will not be a problem for Casali. Neither will be coaching.

Another “huge” factor into his signing with San Francisco was Ecker, one of the three-headed hitting trio who helped revive the Giants’ offense last season. Casali’s bat improved under Ecker’s tutelage, slashing .293/.355/.450 in 2018 even with a hip that required surgery after the season (after which he briefly discussed the operation with Posey).

In the abbreviated 2020 season, Casali posted his career-best OPS (.866) while walking and striking out more, as well as generating more pop from his bat (six home runs in 93 plate appearances). Casali said he felt stronger a year removed from surgery and alluded to now getting a “second dose” of Ecker, saying the coach’s approach is “ever-changing.” The Giants warmed up differently last season, slider machines and more realistic warmup pitches rather than the traditional soft-toss. Ecker is part of that thinking.

“I think he’s on the forefront of all of what’s capable, in terms of the offensive game. I think he was just able to recognize that I’m just somebody who I guess gets bored within the surroundings of having a batting-cage routine,” said Casali, adding he had gotten into bad habits in the past. “… Donnie was the one — I’ve never had a hitting coach do this — was just to straight-up challenge me. He made me start hitting left-handed in the cage to work on some symmetry, he had me hitting weighted balls, he had me doing visualization drills, just different things that I’ve never really thought of.

“I really love being challenged within the practice part of the game.”

Within the structure of the Giants, a club that believes in development at all stages of the game and has seen upticks from players like Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt under that belief, that sentiment helps make Casali a nice fit, even with a club that now has four righty-hitting catchers on its 40-man roster.

But then, Casali’s friendships on the team might have made him a nice fit anyway.