The most action in the Giants’ organization before San Francisco’s’ Tuesday game against the Phillies came away from Oracle Park.
Luis Matos, San Francisco’s seventh-ranked prospect, was promoted from Double-A Richmond to Triple-A Sacramento. Matos, 21, was raking in Richmond and, since he’s already on the 40-man roster, could be a possible contributor to the Giants at some point later this year if he continues to perform for the River Cats.
Vaun Brown, another promising prospect, was activated off the injured list and placed on the Richmond roster to take Matos’ place in center field.
“We really challenged (Matos) in spring training to really refine his strike zone and decision-making in the box, and he’s been one of the best in Double-A at that,” Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi told KNBR.com.
Marc Delucchi of Giants Baseball Insider first reported the Matos news.
For the Richmond Flying Squirrels, Matos slashed .304/.399/.444 with three home runs. He stole nine bases while getting caught four times. Matos, a center fielder, won Defensive Player of the Year in the Arizona Fall League.
The most impressive improvement for Matos is his plate discipline. In 31 games, he walked 17 times compared to 12 strikeouts. Last year at Eugene, while battling a quad injury, he struck out 65 times while taking just 27 walks, putting together a disappointing .619 OPS.
“For us, it’s sort of when we challenge a guy, and he meets the challenge, rewarding them,” Zaidi said. “He kind of earned his way up. You want to get that positive reinforcement when guys meet the challenge presented to them.”
The most high-profile prospect in the Giants’ system, Kyle Harrison, still needs to meet that challenge, Zaidi said.
Harrison, regarded as the top left-handed pitching prospect in baseball, is coming off his two strongest starts for Sacramento. First, he pitched four scoreless innings while striking out seven and walking none against Las Vegas. Then, he allowed two runs in 3.2 innings, fanning eight and walking four.
In eight Triple-A starts this season, Harrison has a 3.47 ERA. He’s striking out a ludicrous 16.2 hitters per nine, but also walking over a batter per inning.
“We’ve talked about it a lot, it’s really about dominating the strike zone and pitching efficiently,” Zaidi said. “Missing a ton of bats, which you love to see — that’s a huge predictor of success. But the other part is doing it efficiently. For (Harrison), whether it’s refining his pitch mix a little bit or just getting reps — as great as he’s pitched, especially recently, he’s still got more walks than innings pitched. We just want to see the command numbers more in line with guys we’ve seen come up and have success immediately.”
In the Pacific Coast League, walk numbers have skyrocketed due to the modified automatic balls and strikes system. Some games are completely officiated by ABS and others use a challenge system.
The ABS system uses Hawkeye technology to automate the strike zone, with 17 inches — the width of the plate — as a strict zone. One Giants pitcher who has pitched with ABS this year, and strongly dislikes it, said pitches need to catch 75% of the corner for it to be called a strike.
Zaidi said the Giants get pitch location data to help sort through player evaluations that might be complicated now with the new system.
Asked specifically if Harrison’s service time could factor into the Giants’ ultimate decision to call him up, Zaidi said “not at all.”
“For a guy to have the walk number he has, we would not consider calling a guy like that up,” Zaidi said. “He’s got to get better. And I don’t mean that to sound critical, he’s just a really young pitcher who hasn’t had a lot of reps. If you’re walking guys in Triple-A, you’re going to have a hard time getting through five or six innings.”
Given how Ross Stripling and Sean Manaea have performed so far in SF’s rotation, the Giants may have a more pressing need for a starter like Harrison to emerge earlier than they may have hoped. Manaea, who lost his spot in the rotation, has a 7.96 ERA and Stripling is only marginally better at 7.14.
Still, Harrison needs to improve before he can ascend to the bigs.
“We’re really excited and encouraged about what he’s doing, but that’s been a development goal of his all along, and the PCL environment is challenging to do it in,” Zaidi said. “Lot of hitters parks and the strike zone has been tightened, some guys are struggling with it. We’re going to see that, whether it happens a couple weeks from now, a couple months from now, that’s absolutely paramount. Because strike-throwing is a big part of our identity as a pitching staff.”