MESA, Ariz. — The Giants won’t weigh one spring training game irrationally. They refuse to make roster decisions based on small-sample Cactus League slash lines. They insist that one catcher starting over another in a spring game is insignificant.
But what Blake Sabol did in Saturday’s Cactus League opener in Sloan Park was as strong a case as he could’ve made in a single game.
Sabol, the 25-year-old converted catcher, smacked a two-run homer and squared up a double against big-league pitching. He did that while managing a game behind the plate by working with six different pitchers, under a set of rules foreign to many players on the field and by using PitchCom for the first time in his career.
In a position battle that the Giants view as a four-man competition, Sabol got the first crack at making an impression. The left-handed hitter did everything he possibly could to tone-set in front of a crowd of 16,152 that was nothing like the last time he played in Sloan Park during fall league.
“I already feel pretty comfortable playing in front of those people and playing on this stage right now,” Sabol said after he left the game.
At the beginning of spring training, the Giants made the surprise public declaration that Joey Bart wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the roster. The former No. 2 pick came into his player plan meeting with president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler as the presumptive starter, and left it as an option.
“For any prospects that come to the big leagues, the organization wants to give them a chance to perform and succeed, and at a certain point, a player just has less of that runway,” Kapler told reporters. “He’s just competing like others are in a major-league camp. And that’s where we are with Joey.”
Bart had an uneven 2022 season, with a midyear demotion to Triple-A for a reset and an impressive August surge that either portends as an outlier or a future of production.
To push Bart, the Giants acquired Sabol — a converted outfielder yet to debut — in the Rule 5 Draft. They returned Austin Wynns, the steady game-manager after he cleared waivers. They added Roberto Pérez, a former Gold Glover coming off two injury-riddled seasons.
On paper, the competition doesn’t look particularly formidable. But Sabol certainly showed some force in San Francisco’s Cactus League opener.
His home run, a shot to straight-away center field, came off Adrian Sampson with one on and two out. Sampson posted a 3.11 ERA last year in 21 starts for the Cubs. He kept the ball in the ballpark, allowing 0.9 home runs per nine innings.
But on Saturday, Sabol — who hasn’t faced much live MLB-caliber pitching at all — took him deep. So did LaMonte Wade Jr. and Casey Schmitt.
Sabol also ripped a double down the third base line off a left-handed pitcher.
“It feels good, obviously, when you can square up a couple baseballs,” Sabol said.
Reports on Sabol, who couldn’t crack Pittsburgh’s 40-man roster, were always sold on his bat. His glove is the question.
Sabol transitioned to catching full-time last year in the minors. His framing numbers are encouraging, manager Gabe Kapler has said, but catcher isn’t a position someone can just pick up on a whim. Especially now with the new pitch timer rules — and all its machinations — catcher is the most demanding position in the sport.
After coming into camp a bit stiff behind the plate, Sabol has improved with more reps, Kapler said recently. He connected with several of San Francisco’s pitchers in the offseason to get to know them and their repertoires in preparation.
The early returns on Sabol’s defense against the Cubs are mostly positive.
“What I noticed was he was still able to focus on his framing, his receiving,” Kapler said. “Which is really good. He fought for every strike, that’s a really good signal.”
Sabol noted that the game sped up on him at one point when Pete Crow-Armstrong stole second base. In the minors, Sabol relied on hearing — either from the dugout or from a position player — that a runner was on the move. In a loud stadium like Sloan Park, he needs to train himself to notice stolen base attempts out of his peripherals.
And the aspect of his game that needs the most work, the Giants have diagnosed, is his throwing arm. Between innings, Sabol would work on throwing down to second, alternating between chucking from his knees and standing up.
“One thing (bullpen coach Craig Albernaz) and I talked about is the physical capability as a thrower is in there,” Kapler said. “We just need to keep working on it.”
Catching involves handling precarious situations with a variety of different personalities. At one point, the Cubs put two runners on the base paths and threatened to score, with their heart of the order up. In a scenario like that, a pitcher likely would step off the rubber to compose himself. The new rules speeding up the pace of play may compound the anxiety for pitchers.
Sabol, though, said the traffic didn’t overwhelm him. He has experience with the pitch clock from the minors, and said he knew to try to call pitches that might induce ground balls.
“At the end of the day, we knew what we were trying to do,” Sabol said.
Sabol’s guidance persisted through the game even while he was also still learning to use PitchCom technology for the first time, which was implemented at the Major League level last year.
The night before the Cactus League opener, Sabol took home the PitchCom and toyed with it with his fiancée, he said. The programmed voice of the Boston-accented Albernaz amused the couple and led to Sabol mimicking his coach in the clubhouse.
“Got quizzed from my fiancée from it,” Sabol said. “It felt like I was studying for a test, it was fun. I noticed today in the first inning that I wasn’t covering up the buttons — then I was like ‘wait a minute, I remember seeing (Wynns) and all them. So then I started covering up the buttons as the game went on.”
It’s a minor note, but learning PitchCom on the fly is a reminder that Sabol is still so raw. He still needs reps. Whether or not he gets enough in Arizona to actually make San Francisco’s Opening Day roster may be out of his control.
But evidence like Saturday will only help his case.
“I’m just trying to learn as much out there as I can,” Sabol said. “I feel like today, all in all, was a successful first day. First step, at least. Excited to get back into the building tomorrow, watch some film and get some drill work in.”