SAN FRANCISCO — Days after receiving the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Giants catcher Buster Posey said he felt a sense that there was finally a “light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Giants as a team appear to be inching closer to that light.
Manager Gabe Kapler had been reluctant to share many details about the process of vaccinating Giants players, coaches and staff members, but he offered his most descriptive update yet on Monday ahead of the team’s three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds.
When asked if he thought the Giants were any closer to meeting a threshold of having 85% of Tier 1 personnel (essentially all members of the team’s traveling party) vaccinated, Kapler sounded encouraged.
“I feel that that’s coming,” Kapler said. “I don’t have an exact date for you, but I can tell you we’re definitely trending in that direction and we’re definitely taking steps everyday to move to a space where 85% plus of our traveling party is vaccinated.”
The 85% target is key for the Giants because that’s threshold Major League Baseball has set for teams to loosen up COVID-19 protocols. Kapler and a handful of Giants players have expressed hope that 85% of its personnel will get inoculated, but until Monday, most members of the organization have spoken with a level of uncertainty.
“The group gets to open up restrictions a little bit,” Kapler said of the incentive. “Obviously always being cognizant of the protocols that are in place, but I think everybody is looking forward to getting to that spot and loosening up just a bit.”
Hitting the 85% target would allow the Giants to ditch face coverings in the dugout, allow team personnel to dine at restaurants and would allow family members who are also fully vaccinated to stay with players in team hotel rooms on the road.
One of the reasons Kapler is looking forward to having more members of his team fully vaccinated is to sit around the clubhouse and talk baseball while getting to see his players’ facial expressions.
“It’s always kind of uncomfortable when we’re sitting around in a room and talking about baseball and we can’t see each other’s expressions,” Kapler said. “I think it’s going to be a really nice day. Let’s put it like that. It’s going to cheer everybody up when we’re in our own clubhouse, in our own space and we’re able to pull our masks down.”
With the Giants looking to cap off their first shutout win of the season Sunday, Kapler brought in left-hander Wandy Peralta to protect a 4-0 ninth-inning lead.
Peralta, who recorded his first career save earlier in the week, walked a pair of Rockies hitters with two outs to set up a showdown with Colorado’s best player, Trevor Story, but the lefty was able to induce a game-ending groundout. It wasn’t a surprise Peralta was the pitcher Kapler used in the ninth inning, but the fact the Giants didn’t have a right-hander they trusted to face Story in a key spot is a bit surprising considering how actively the club worked to upgrade its bullpen depth in the offseason.
After placing righty Reyes Moronta on the 10-day injured list Sunday with a right flexor strain, the Giants are down to two right-handed relief options: Setup man Tyler Rogers and Matt Wisler, who allowed six earned runs in his first four appearances this season.
The Giants are clearly short on righties, but make no mistake: Kapler still likes his late-inning options.
“We can say with our lefties that they have weapons to get lefties and righties out,” Kapler said. “I don’t think it makes sense to dive too deeply into Jake McGee because he’s essentially a guy who uses this one very elite weapon to get outs in his fastball, but with our other left-handed pitchers, they have weapons so that they’re capable of getting lefties and righties out.”
Kapler pointed to the sinkers, sliders and changeups his southpaws can throw to keep right-handed hitters off balance, but it seems risky to continue giving opponents such as Story favorable matchups in big moments.
The Giants have three prominent right-handed relief options throwing at their alternate in Nick Tropeano, Dominic Leone and Zack Littell who all impressed during spring training, but there’s another option San Francisco may want to consider.
Righty Shane Greene, who has 66 career saves and a 2.39 ERA in his last 93 appearances, remains a free agent and is reportedly seeking a major league deal. Signing Greene would require the Giants to clear space on their 40-man roster, but he would instantly become one of the more experienced high-leverage arms in their bullpen and could be dealt at the trade deadline when the club might be ready to look at younger prospects such as Camilo Doval or Gregory Santos.
Teams are reportedly wary of meeting Greene’s contractual demands because of a low groundball rate, but Oracle Park is one of the rare places relievers can get away with flyballs. Greene may not be as good as the 2.60 ERA he posted last season suggests, but he could help give the Giants more balance at the end of games.
It’s no secret Kapler and Giants hitters have been frustrated with the lineup’s performance through the first 10 games, but first baseman Brandon Belt mentioned Sunday he thinks the club is close to a breakthrough.
A peek at some Statcast batted ball data suggests Belt might be on the right track.
Entering Monday’s three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds, the Giants’ offense led the majors by “barreling” up 11.5% of the balls the team has put in play this year. The Giants have hit the sweet spot of the bat on 37.3% of the balls in play, good for fifth in the majors and have an averaged 14.9 degree launch angle, which also ranks fifth.
The definitions for barrel% and sweet spot% are a bit wonky, but they’re typically great indicators of the quality of contact a team is making and often correlate well with extra-base hit totals. The Giants’ sweet spot percentage ranking may not mean much to the average fan, but the fact the club entered play Monday with the third-most home runs in the majors certainly registers.
Kapler said he likes using advanced data to evaluate his hitters’ performance, but also notes that more traditional stats still have plenty of value and make an impact in his decision-making process.
“We’re doing a nice job of hitting the ball squarely and we have good barrel accuracy right now,” Kapler said. “But the (stats) that I think all of our hitters and pitchers understand are strikeouts and walks. If we’re striking out a lot and not getting on base via longer at-bats via the walk, then that’s not the type of offense that we want to have.”
Kapler warned that it’s a bit early to start reading into every statistic, but it’s worth noting the Giants’ walk rate increased in a significant way against the Rockies and the team entered its matchup with Cincinnati with a 10.9% walk rate, the seventh-best mark in the majors.
As for strikeouts, the lineup has a bit more work to do. The Giants’ 25.2% K rate is tied for the 16th-best in the majors, so San Francisco is still slightly below league average.
One traditional stat the Giants also must improve: Runs per game. Their 3.1 runs per game so far is the second-worst mark in the majors.
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Author: Kerry Crowley
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