ORACLE PARK — When Chris Saw was assigned to Double-A Richmond out of spring training, he was furious.
He’d spent 22 games in the big leagues in 2018, got his first home run out of the way and was regarded as the San Francisco Giants’ No. 4 overall prospect — higher than Steven Duggar, higher than Shaun Anderson, higher than Austin Slater. “I was angry,” Shaw said. “I wanted to just go out and tear the cover off the ball.”
Having significantly lowered his much-maligned strikeout rate, Shaw was called back up to San Francisco in September after mashing 28 home runs in 492 plate appearances, but he’s gotten sparse playing time. Over the next two weeks, he hopes he can show the big league front office what he’s worked a year to prove to himself.
In February, before he shipped off to Arizona for spring training, Shaw effusively praised the Giants’ analytics department. Even before numbers-centric Moneyball-raised Farhan Zaidi took over as president of baseball operations, Yeshayah Goldfarb had helped show Shaw where his weaknesses were with heat maps and swing charts.
From 2016 to 2018, Shaw struck out in 26.8% of his plate appearances, but did smash 70 home runs. When he got to the big leagues in 2018, he hit just .185 with 23 strikeouts in 62 plate appearances. Even in the boom-or-bust game of the three true outcomes, that just wasn’t acceptible.
“Last year, I sucked,” Shaw said. “It’d be hard to play baseball if you’re not honest with yourself.”
He spent the offseason hitting in the snow at his alma mater of Boston College, working on pitch recognition and shortening his swing. He hit .217 in the spring, with six strikeouts in 24 plate appearances, two homers and a double. That wasn’t enough to slide into an outfield spot (there were more than a dozen candidates, none of whom are on the current roster), and certainly not to displace entrenched starting first baseman Brandon Belt.
So, the 2015 first-round draft pick headed back to Double-A, where much of the rest of his draft class was. It’s easy to forget how quickly Shaw — taken No. 31 overall — advanced through the system. When he reached Richmond, he had a support system, of sorts, including his first professional roommate, second baseman Jalen Miller.
“You just look at the assignment andjust say, ‘Look, this is what I’ve got to do to get out of here,’” Shaw said. “For me the biggest thing was to relax and have fun and play baseball. There were a lot of guys I played with coming up. It was really refreshing to be with those guys again, guys who hadn’t been up through the system yet and were still kind of wide-eyed.”
In 45 games for the Flying Squirrels, he slashed .288/.368/.500 with seven homers in 45 games, and soon earned a promotion back to Triple-A, where he slashed .298/.355/.592 with 21 homers in 75 games. He struck out 111 times in 492 plate appearances — a career-low 22.6% strikeout rate. It was the best minor league season of his career.
“I just think I was myself again,” Shaw said.
Called up when rosters expanded, he and the newly-acquired Mauricio Dubon were slotted between Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt in the Giants locker room. He’s only had seven at-bats in six games, and no starts. He’s struck out six times.
“I’ve just got to stay the same,” Shaw said. “I feel like what I did this year will translate.”
On Wednesday, though manager Bruce Bochy wants to get him in, at some point.
“He was close to being in there today,” Bochy said. “[Mike Yastrzemski] is good to go, Belt’s good, but yeah, I’d like to find a game to get him some at-bats.”
There’s no reason for the Giants not to give Shaw an extended look. Out of the playoff race for more than a week, San Francisco can afford to let Shaw prove himself in somewhat consistent big league at-bats, especially with Alex Dickerson having difficulty getting back into left field thanks to a nagging oblique injury. Belt could use the time off at first, too. His future trade value won’t be impacted much by two weeks of additional data: At his ceiling, Belt is a 20-home run, 80-RBI player with a plus glove, but he’s trending away from that, hitting a career-worst .232 with a career-low .398 slugging percentage in 2019.
San Francisco could play Yastrzemski in right (he’s started in left and hit leadoff on Wednesday), but trade deadline acquisition Jaylin Davis is getting a look there. Why him and not Shaw? Davis was targeted and acquired by Zaidi at the trade deadline. While it’s not been explicitly said, Davis is going to be given every chance to establish himself after an exciting minor league season that saw him hit 35 homers.
He’s got his own issues though: Just 7.1% of his batted balls have been in the air with the Giants, while 85.7% have been on the ground. With Triple-A Sacramento this year, his fly ball percentage was 31.9%, and with the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate, it was 26.4%.
Bochy chalked that up to trying too hard in his first big league action. Shaw, of course, has already gotten that out of the way.
“If I’m thrown out there, and I get an opportunity for a while, it’s not something that’s just a hit-or-miss type feel that I had for the year,” Shaw said. “I feel like it was something that I genuinely will be able to attain, going forward. I feel like I’m myself again.”
La proxima Dia de Cueto: Johnny Cueto came out of his 69-pitch, five-inning, one-hit 2019 debut just fine, and was on his regular throw day on Wednesday. San Francisco is taking a careful approach with Cueto, and as this paper predicted, he’ll next start on Tuesday at Boston.
Lineup notes: Corban Joseph is starting in place of Evan Longoria, who’s getting the day off to keep him fresh. Same goes for Stephen Vogt catching for Buster Posey. Posey was going to play in one of the day-night games today and tomorrow, and Bochy opted for the 12:45 p.m. Thursday start.
Moronta’s recovery experience: Reyes Moronta came out of shoulder surgery better than expected. His torn labrum was repaired, and there was no repair needed to the shoulder capsule. There’s still no timeline for his return, but it’s likely he misses most — if not all — of 2020.
Vogel-sing it again: World Series hero Ryan Vogelsong is now with the club as a special advisor, helping out pitching coach Curt Young and coaching up some of the younger pitchers. Last year, he helped Chris Stratton figure out his motion, which led to a late-season surge.
Swinging Dick: Alex Dickerson took swings in the batting cage on Wednesday after a weekend cortisone injection, and the goal is for him to be back in games by the weekend.
Come a little bit closer: Closer Will Smith dealt with some mild claustrophobia on Tuesday as he underwent an MRI to see if there was something structurally unsound in his balky back. The good news: His back stiffness is just muscular. He said that Tuesday was the best day he’s had since his back locked up on him in Los Angeles. On Wednesday, Bochy said Smith would start throwing on Thursday, with the aim of being available to pitch this weekend.
In the meantime, the Giants have no compunction against using Shaun Anderson. Part of the starting rotation for much of the year, Anderson was sent to the bullpen in late August and has since allowed just three earned runs with four walks and 10 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings. A closer at Florida, Anderson has not had a save since his days in Gainesville until he came on for a four-out save on Tuesday night.
“I think anyone who’s in the bullpen wants wants those situations and I think I was ready,” Anderson said.
His velocity ticked up, his slider was sharper and he the nasty factor he has as a starter certainly played up.
“It could be the [move to the] bullpen, but the pitching coaches and I worked on a lot of stuff, and I think that’s transitioned into just what my stuff’s been lately,” Andersonsaid.
In Anderson’s previous relief outing in a 1-0 win against the Dodgers, catcher Stephen Vogt said he saw the makings of a “special” late-inning arm. That was true again on Tuesday.
I think his tenacity, his demeanor is very closer-ish, and pretty impressive for a kid who just got sent to the bullpen — what? a few weeks ago?” Vogt said. “He’s owning that role, and he’s trying to be the best he can be out of that role. He wanted to close. He wanted the chance that he got tonight. I was really happy for him. That was a huge, huge moment. We shared a little dance in the dugout that was pretty fun too.”
As for where anderson winds up in the long term, Bochy — retiring at the end of the season — couldn’t say, but he certainly could theorize.
“That’s up in the air,” he said. “It’s certainly nice to have that option, if you’re a pitcher, the ability to start or relieve. Next year that’ll be a call they have to make … He’s shown that he’s not like a lot of relievers, that lose stuff when they get to a certain pitch count — 60, 70. He has shown that he can use his strength there throughout his outings that were up to 100 pitches.”