Take Outs Quicker Than You Make Outs

Do the Giants have a "comfort" problem

Some of you may recall a piece I wrote this spring on my old Coach and baseball mentor, the legendary Pete Beiden. If you read that piece (and I hope you did because it was one of my favorite I’ve written on There R Giants) you know that Pete summed up the tactical heart of the game with the title of today’s post: you need to take outs quicker than make outs.

Led by Mike Yastrzemski, currently the MLB leader in WAR (1.2) and Donovan Solano (0.8), the Giants have been pleasantly strong at the “make outs” half of that calculation. They’re currently 9th in baseball in Runs Scored, tenth in OBP (.321) and wRC+ (106). All in all, they seem to be lining up with a decidedly above average offense.

The “take outs” half of the formula, though, has been an issue. Only the Mariners have given up more than the Giants 80 Runs Allowed, and the Diamondbacks (71) are the only other team in baseball within 10 of them. The Indians, who have also played 14 games so far, have given up just 30 runs in all!

The Pitching has, by virtually any measure, been dreadful. Their ERA of 5.02 is sixth worse in the game, and more advanced metrics which try to isolate the pitcher’s responsibilities for outcomes grade them out even worse — they’re bottom four in MLB by FIP, xFIP, Sierra, whichever advanced formula is your favorite. Giants’ pitchers walk more batters than they should (10th worst in baseball). They give up my homers than they should (8th worst in HR/9 innings). But where they really fall down is in missing bats — the Giants staff is worst in baseball in K rate, striking out just 19.2% of batters they face. That means they are going to live and die on the fate of the batted ball.

Which brings us to the other element of “Taking Outs.” The Defense has been a subject of particularly angst so far this year. The Giants lead baseball in errors committed (17) and while errors are a particularly bad way of judging defense, they’re still not something you want to pile up in heaps — particularly given how loath some scorekeepers are to award errors in the first place. But we’ve been watching the games and we all know the errors are just part of the issue — there have also been mental gaffes galore and a general sloppiness of play. I’m guessing if all of Manager Gabe Kapler’s post-game press conferences were fed into a Word Cloud generator the resulting image would feature the words “clean it up” prominently. Neither Baseball Prospectus nor Savant have team defensive stats available yet, but Fangraphs has the Giants’ 23rd in baseball in their Ultimate Zone Rating (which predominantly measures defensive range) and 24th in the Defensive portion of their WAR.

And one sub-theme that’s been humming along with their sloppiness so far this year has been the question of players’ comfort level. Alex Dickerson, after a rough inning in Colorado, noted that he hadn’t played RF much and wasn’t perhaps used to what he was seeing (“visually there was a lot going on”). Tyler Heineman’s unusually high amount of Catcher’s Interference has been explained by Kapler as a result of the staff asking him to further forward than his normal setup up to better frame low pitches. Mauricio Dubon was kept out of the lineup to “reset mentally,” with Kapler noting the team had asked a lot of a young player not yet established. “He’s learning to move around the diamond and play second, short, center field, move back and forth.” Kapler said, “That’s a challenge.”

Dubon’s not the only one either. Wilmer Flores has rotated among three different infield spots (none too successfully), as has Solano. And, of course, the shifts (which drew the ire of Johnny Cueto recently) make the whole notion of defensive position a fluid one anyway. I’m not here to debate shifts — they pretty clearly follow Pete’s dictates by taking more outs than they give away — but I think it is fair to wonder if some of the sloppiness we’re seeing this year stems from lack of familiarity.

Like all athletes, baseball players are at their best when they respond instinctually to what they’re seeing. Instincts are formed from visual libraries, visually libraries are built through repetition. The less a player has seen the game from a certain angle, the less they can rely on their instincts and the more they have to think about what they’re doing— not always a great thing on the field of play.

Still, we know where this is all supposed to lead — the Dodgers have used this very path with such great success that they are commonly acknowledged the model organization in the sport. Kike Hernandez, Chris Taylor, Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson — their roster is full of players who bounce seamlessly between infield and outfield, and around the horn of both. And while the Dodgers have not been a great defensive team the last few years (it may not surprise you to know that Max Muncy doesn’t grade out all that highly at 3b or 2b) the offensive versatility this has given their lineup makes the defensive liabilities well worth it in the end.

And there’s a good chance this is as true as possible of the Giants this year as well. Wilmer Flores isn’t a particularly gifted defender anywhere, but he’s been a very steady presence in the lineup. While Fangraphs doesn’t think much of the Giants’ team defense, those defensive numbers are baked into their position player WAR where the Giants (1.8) grade out in the top 10 in baseball. So quite possibly this is, as Dr. Pangloss would say, the best of all possible Giants’ lineups.

But I will say, that I have been struck by the sort of benign neglect with which the Giants seem to be treating defense this year. Some of this was thrust upon them with the season opening injuries to Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria — the two best defenders on the club. But clearly there are places where they are choosing to place a lower priority on defense.

One of the most interesting of those is CF where the Giants are trying a fascinating experiment with Mike Yastrzemski. By any measure, Yaz is succeeding in Pete Beiden’s dictum. He is certainly taking outs quicker than he’s making them — because he’s not making many of them. Yastrzemski has vaulted his offensive game even higher this year thanks to a near total command of the strike zone. I’m with Kerry Crowley on this — the thing that’s impressed me most about Yaz this year is the quality of his takes, even on really really nasty stuff:

And with offensive production you can live with a lesser bit of defense. Yaz’ work in CF has been almost exactly what we might have expected — he’s a little below average. By Statcast measurement, he’s at -1 Outs Above Average in this still very young season. Just by way of comparison that’s the same as Ian Happ who is mostly manning CF for the Cubs this year, and lagging a bit behind guys like Trent Grisham and Ramon Laureano (+1) or the Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier (+2). Yaz grades out very well on his route accuracy, but his reactions are a bit slow, his burst below average and he ultimately covers about 1 foot less range than average compared with other CF. In other words, he is what he appears to be — steady, solid, fluid in motion, but lacking the speed of true CF. Statistically speaking where that starts to tell is in plays that have a Catch Probability of about 75%. He’s allowed three hits this year on 75% probability plays — so this isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.

Overall, given his incredible offensive production and given the roster that the Giants started the season with (which lacked any true CF), putting Yaz in CF made the most sense for this team. When they decided to send down Jaylin Davis and add Steven Duggar to the roster, however, it began to make arguably less sense. Duggar, who has struggled to make quality contact with major league pitching in nearly 500 PA now, brings one solid skill to a major league team — above average defense, and specifically range, in CF. Alex Dickerson also brings one solid skill to a major league team — banging the hell out of RHP.

So while Yaz himself is certainly taking outs quicker than he’s making them in CF, it’s less easy to wrap one’s head around a Duggar/Yaz/Dickerson alignment in the OF as the best of all possible team configurations. Perhaps the idea is that Yaz is the guy who’s certain to be here for the long run (not Duggar) so keep him out there to increase his comfort level — an argument I can definitely get behind. But there is a ripple effect involved — Yaz is a little below average in CF, Dickerson or Pence, and even Austin Slater, are probably below average in RF, etc. There are potential outs, or potential 90’ being left on the table with these configurations and those extra outs aren’t helping a struggling pitching staff any.

All of which made yesterday’s game such a positive development — regardless of the final outcome. I did some devious editing with Gabe Kapler’s quote regarding Mauricio Dubon above — the full version goes like this:

“He’s learning to move around the diamond and play second, short, center field, move back and forth. That’s a challenge, and one that I think he’s very much up to, which he’s said repeatedly he’s up to.” [emphasis added]. Yesterday, with Yaz getting the day off, Dubon took to CF for just the second time this year and he did this!

That’ll give you some confidence! And perhaps taking that little extra strut in his step to the plate with him, Dubon later gave the Giants their biggest swing of the day as well. Of course it helped some that Kyle Freeland, on his 97th pitch of the day, really fed Dubon’s happy zone. Here are the pitch locations of every major league HR Dubon has hit:

And here’s where Kyle Freeland’s 92 mph pitch went yesterday:

Yep, found the happy zone!

Still, this is the experiment I really would like to see the Giants’ commit to this season — trying to see if Dubon, rather than Yaz, can be made into an average or better defensive CF. Yaz is providing so much production that he’s going to be an asset to the team no matter where they put him. But Dubon, who has been badly hampered by a “swing at everything” approach at the plate so far, really needs to be maximizing his defensive value to be an asset to the lineup. A Dickerson-Slater/Dubon/Yastrzemski OF alignment might be the one that best positions the team to take outs quicker than they make outs and give the beleaguered pitching staff a little more of an assist in the field. And perhaps the consistency would give them all just a little more comfort.

All of which brings me to a topic that I dip my toes in with extreme trepidation — knowing that it will be very easy to interpret what I’m about to say as a large serving of Haterade and Tonic. Which is not at all how I intend this!

Last fall when addressing his managerial search, Farhan Zaidi at one point noted that “a lot of times guys do better and have more traction their second time around, because the lessons that they've learned” — a quote that Andy Baggarly very astutely noted at the time seemed to be specifically thinking about Gabe Kapler. Zaidi was making a perfectly valid argument that we’ve seen play out over and over in baseball history — Joe Torre, Bruce Bochy, AJ Hinch, hell look at Casey Stengle if you’re so inclined. Managers who have failed in one place very often turn those lessons into success somewhere else.

Now I thought at the time that Kapler, like others before him, would probably benefit with some time and space in which to heal, to mourn (first and foremost, getting fired sucks and it’s not an experience I wish on anyone), and most importantly, to reflect. He didn’t get that time before taking on his second assignment. As it happens much of the attention on Kapler so far has been on his past, his communication style, his overall gestalt, to the degree that we’ve spent relatively little time thinking about whether or not he’s incorporating lessons learned from his Phillies’ experience into his position with the Giants. From a national perspective, his famous gaffe of calling for a pitcher who hadn’t warmed up yet, is what clings to the imagination. But he promised that wouldn’t happen again and it never did. From the local perspective, his “mistakes” with the Phillies were a little broader than just a famous gaffe.

While a quick google search of “Gabe Kapler Phillies critics” produces a bevy of articles to choose from — here’s one that comes with a nice overall summary of the critic’s view of his time in Philadelphia:

He changes the Phillies' lineup too much. He pulls his starting pitchers too early. He plays too many players out of position. He makes too many pitching changes.

At first glance that list includes a lot of elements we’re getting used to seeing with the Giants as well. We’ve heard Kapler speak a lot about improving his communication with players and taking their comfort levels into account in strategic decisions, so it would seem that he’s trying to nuance the approach that failed him in Philadelphia more than change it wholesale.

Still it bears watching — as we hear Kevin Gausman talk about the comfort level of sticking to a rotation schedule, or Cueto the discomfort of shifts, or Dickerson the role that lack of familiarity with a position might play: does this amount of fluidity lead to a “comfort problem?” Does it create more problems than it solves? Does it give away outs that could be taken? How Kapler navigates that line may hold the key to his ultimate legacy as a Giants manager.

And beyond that: I think there’s a legitimate question to be asked as to whether either Kapler or Zaidi think of the issues described above as “mistakes” at all? Both of these men have seen this approach work in LA. While others might look at the positional fluidity that disrupted the Phillies and see players being put in positions to fail, might Kapler and Zaidi have seen a noble experiment that just didn’t happen to flower over two years and deserves more time to flourish? Is what we’re seeing now the product of this specific roster — its strengths and its weaknesses — or is it the blueprint for going forward. We won’t know the answer to this for several years but it’s possibly the most fascinating storyline to watch in 2020.

This Date in History

2005: Home runs powered San Jose to a 8-1 victory in Modesto as OF John Bowker, Nate Schierholtz, and Eddy Martinez-Esteve all went deep. Something of a forgotten prospect at this point, Martinez-Esteve was the Giants top overall pick in 2004 (2nd round) — the draft in which the Giants intentionally, and notoriously, gave away their 1st round pick by signing Michael Tucker just hours before he would have been free of compensation. Martinez-Esteve was considered one of the most advanced hitters in the college ranks, and he sure looked like it in 2005 when he hit .313/.427/.524 in the Cal League with 64 extra base hits. But he had surprised the Giants by choosing to have shoulder surgery on his own that winter, and was limited to DH most of the year and then missed San Jose’s post-season with a foot injury. He’d also suffered hamstring and arm issues in college that limited his athleticism and in the coming years it would be his injuries, not his bat, that would define his career.

2015: Sandro Fabian hit a game tying HR in the bottom of the 9th, and Robinson Medrano similarly came through with a game tying triple in the bottom of the 11th, helping the DSL Giants complete a dramatic 7-6 victory over the Rojos in which they came back from behind three different times. The win kept the 43-16 Giants holding onto a slim 1 game lead in their division with just two weeks left to play, on their journey to a league championship.

2019: Matt Frisbee logged a career high 11 strikeouts over 7 shutout innings in a 2-0 victory in Lake Elsinore. Frisbee, a 15th round pick in 2018 out of UNC-Greensboro, became the surprise breakout of the 2019 season, posting a 3.18 ERA between Augusta and San Jose, and totaling 154 strikeouts — second only to Seth Corry in the system. He was particularly strong down the stretch, holding opponents to a .210 batting average and a 1.32 ERA in the month of August.

Have a great weekend everybody. Remember to BEAT L-A!