ORACLE PARK — After Brandon Belt’s neck locked up while preparing for a pinch hitting appearance late in Sunday’s series finale against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a curious personnel move.
Tyler Austin — brought in to be a hammer against left-handed pitchers — went up to the plate against Dodgers starter Walker Buehler, a righty. He struck out on five pitches.
In Tuesday’s opener against the San Diego Padres, San Francisco is starting Austin in left field against right-handed All-Star candidate Chris Paddack. It will be just his third start against a righty this season, starts which could become more frequent. Despite woeful splits against right-handers, the Giants want to see if familiarity breeds better numbers from a hitter who could give the lineup some much-needed pop.
“That’s part of it,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “I think you look at what he’s done against them in the minor leagues, it’s pretty good. When you don’t see them, that’s tough duty.”
This season, the right-handed-swinging Austin is hitting just .138 against right-handers (4-for-29) with 15 strikeouts, two walks and just one home run in 31 plate appearances. Those numbers are in stark contrast to his numbers against lefties: He’s slashing .286/.397/.571 against southpaws with just 20 strikeouts in 58 plate appearances to nine walks, and four home runs.
Recently, Bochy said, he and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi have had talks about upping Austin’s workload against right-handers. While his overall big league splits aren’t suggestive of future success against righties (.203 vs. RHP, .276 vs. LHP), he does have numbers that are much closer when dealing with right-handed starters (.224) and left-handed starters (.240), and his splits last season (.226 vs. RHP, .236 vs. LHP) were also much closer than the extremes of 2019. The difference: He had 101 plate appearances against lefties, and 167 against left-handers — significant time against both.
Bochy and Zaidi discussed the prospect of getting Austin more balanced time on Tuesday.
“We met today, talked about it. Even a couple days ago, we talked about it, just keep him in the mix a little bit more,” Bochy said. “It wouldn’t be a complete, or all-the-time four-man rotation, but a little bit more often, so he doesn’t sit quite so long when we have a long run without seeing left-handers.”
While his power numbers (one homer ever 11 at-bats against lefties, one every 17.2 against righties) still favored lefties last season, in his career, he has a .294 batting average on balls in play against lefties — right around the big league average across all hitters, so when he puts the ball in play against lefties, he’s at the very least replacement-level, which is something San Francisco desperately needs in left field. If he can recognize pitches as well as he does against left-handers — which comes wiht time and reps — he could be a bigger part of the outfield rotation.
“When you just see them occasionally, you don’t have a good feel for the breaking ball going away from your, or even a changeup or even a fastball, so the more he sees, the more comfortable he’s going to get,” Bochy said. “That’s why I think I’d like to get him in the mix a little bit more.”
While Bochy may not have had much choice in pinch-hitting the powerful Austin in a one-run game on Sunday, the Giants have notably had difficulty finding any kind of consistent production from the left field spot, and similar struggles finding power, period: They’re 28th in the Majors with just 58 home runs, and haven’t had a 20-home run hitter since Brandon Crawford in 2015.
The unspoken reason may be that San Francisco does intend to shop Belt, meaning that Austin could get more time either in left while Pablo Sandoval mans first, or that Austin himself could become something of an everyday first baseman.
After a day off, Belt is still available for pinch hitting and double switch duties late in the game, but Bochy wanted to make sure his neck — which Belt has never had problems with — was squared away. He missed Sunday’s game initially because of a stomach virus.
Posey on Track
Buster Posey ran the bases and hit on Tuesday. He’s on track to return from his hamstring injury on Wednesday.
“You saw him, he was out here running bases, and if he feels good tomorrow or even later today, I would say chances are he could play tomorrow. Not a definite, but looks good,” Bochy said.
“This is not anything against the other catchers, but this guy means a lot,” Bochy said. “Having his presence there extends your lineup. He’s your guy. Every team looks at a guy in their lineup that, if he’s gone, he’s going to be the one they’re going to miss more than anybody. I think it’s fair to say that would be Buster for us.”
Getting Smitty With It
Will Smith has saved 14 straight games to start the season, the third-msot by a Giant to start a season since 1969 (Rod Beck had 28 in 1994, and Craig Lefferts had 15 in 1989). Given that Buster Posey is the only Giants position player to be among the first wave of top-10 All-Star vote totals (nearly 800,000 behind the leader), it’s more likely that San Francisco’s obligatory All-Star selection for Cleveland would come out of the bullpen.
“I think you have to look at what he’s done, sure,” Bochy said of Smith. “Smitty’s been right on it, every time out there. He’s done a terrific job. There’s no doubt he’s in consideration. Somebody’s going to have to go from this club, and I think he’s the one guy, as much as anybody, that you look at. [Madison Bumgarner]’s got, the win’s aren’t there, but he’s throwing the ball well. Even [Jeff] Samardzija, you look at his ERA, he’s been throwing the ball well. Our relievers are going to get looked at.”
Smith’s perfect save record and his .155 opponents’ batting average (not to mention his 2.23 ERA) would make him a fairly strong candidate. Smith told the Examiner he’d be down with going back to Cleveland. He made a trip to the city this offseason for a Browns-Falcons game, and visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with some friends. He wants to get a longer look at the place. The All-Star break may just be his chance.