By Chris Haft
Special to The Examiner
The Giants will never know how productive LaMonte Wade Jr. can truly be until they allow him to test his skills against left-handed pitching.
Now’s not the time for such experimentation. Playing deep into October is the Giants’ immediate goal. For now, that means starting the left-handed Wade against right-handed pitchers and benching him against lefties. And it cannot be denied that much of the team’s spectacular success can be attributed to manager Gabe Kapler’s steady platooning.
But everybody can agree — right, everybody? — that Wade’s hitting in general, and ninth-inning feats specifically, have earned him a chance to compete for an everyday role. He has ample room for improvement. He’s batting .114 (4-for-35) this season off lefties, compared with .288 (79-for-274) against righties.
The surest off-season bet is that Wade will spend much of his winter at his old school, the University of Maryland, swinging against every left-handed batting practice pitcher he can find and taking hundreds — make that thousands — of hacks at pitching machines that simulate a left-hander’s delivery.
Moreover, Wade deserves the opportunity. San Francisco owned a .647 winning percentage, based on its 99-54 record, through Thursday. That winning percentage climbs to .733 (55-20) when Wade starts.
Sticking with the status quo for 2022 is an option. It also might not be possible. Even the best teams must rebuild their bullpens, fill an opening or two in the starting rotation and reshuffle the lineup to some degree. As blasphemous as this sounds, the Giants can’t be certain that Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey will replicate their excellent 2021 seasons. Besides, what if they don’t re-sign Kevin Gausman or Kris Bryant?
Winning 100-plus games no longer affords a ballclub the security it once did. Consider the immediate aftermath of the Giants’ most recent 100-win squads in 1993 and 2003. The ‘94 team reversed an 8-19 June with a 19-8 July, but they were still 55-60 overall when a nonsensical work stoppage ended the season in early August. The ‘04 club needed a 26-12 surge beginning Aug. 12 to climb back into contention before Steve Finley’s game-winning grand slam for the Dodgers on the season’s final Saturday blunted the comeback.
Should Wade merely approach from the left side what he can do batting right-handed, he could help the Giants remain competitive for quite a while. His ninth-inning slash line (.600/.619/.900) is astounding.
The Giants owe it to themselves to see how much ability they can coax from Wade, who’ll be 28 next Opening Day. In some way, Wade’s fate could be tied to Mike Yastrzemski’s. After thriving against lefties in 2019 (.329/.382/.561) and last season (.284/.385/.612), Yastrzemski has struggled against southpaws this year (.173/.258/.264). The Giants won’t even begin to consider keeping two players in the lineup with the same flaw.
Fortunately for Wade, encouraging precedents do exist. No less a figure than Willie McCovey, who retired in 1980 as the National League’s all-time home run leader among left-handed batters, prompted skepticism from manager Alvin Dark with his skills, or lack of them, as a left-handed batter confronting lefty pitchers. McCovey fueled Dark’s doubts by hitting .191 off lefties from 1960-65. Then came gradual improvement. McCovey posted a .242 batting average against lefties in 1966, held steady in 1967 (.234) and improved to .253 in 1968. He hit an impressive .293 off lefties in 1969, when he won the NL’s Most Valuable Player Award.
McCovey batted .248 lifetime off lefties — not remarkable, but solid, particularly given his early troubles. He hit 100 of his homers off left-handers, enough to push his career total to a Hall of Fame-worthy 521. All it took was some experience, accented with a dash of confidence.
That same combination should help Wade, if he receives the chance.
Chris is a longtime baseball writer who covers the Giants for The Examiner.