Chris Shaw singles during the second inning of the Giants' game on Sunday, September 16, 2018. The Giants lost to the Colorado Rockies 2-3. (©2019 S.F. Giants)

San Francisco Giants outfielder Chris Shaw looking to shed free-swinging reputation

Chris Shaw grew up playing ice hockey. Every winter, he and his father would build a miniature ice rink in the family’s backyard in Lexington, Massachusetts. The thing was, Shaw wasn’t a very good skater.

So, every morning, before school, from the sixth grade through the 10th, he woke up when it was still dark and headed to the local rink for some lessons. From a figure skater. They’d skate for an hour and a half, then he’d head to class.

“I swallowed my pride a little bit with that one,” said Shaw now an outfielder for the San Francisco Giants, headed into his first full big league season . “You have to. Figure skaters are the best skaters in the world, hands down. She’d be doing her stuff, and I did it every day. It was just the commitment to getting better.”

After striking out more over the past three seasons than any player in the Giants’ organization, Shaw swallowed his pride again. For San Francisco’s former No. 4 prospect to compete for a spot in an outfield that’s only going to get more crowded, Shaw has used new tools to re-make himself, transforming from being a pure masher into a more complete hitter.

“It bothers me,” Shaw said, of his free-swinging reputation. “There’s no question about that. I think that I don’t want there to be some perception that I’m just this guy who goes up there trying to hit the ball a hundred miles. I’m not trying to launch it. I’m trying to put the ball in play.”

When Shaw made his way back to Boston this offseason, he practiced with his alma mater, Boston College, when he could. He would hit for three hours a day for 10-day stretches, often with snow on the ground. He worked on pitch recognition and shortened his swing to get to the ball quicker. Everything was done in service of lengthening the time he had to make better decisions at the plate.

“Honestly, it’s just controlling thoughts,” Shaw said. “You’re going up there and not thinking, ‘I have to make something happen right now.’ That’s not the way the game’s going right now. Pitchers would rather walk you than let you hit it over the fence.

“They don’t want to let these guys who slug, slug. Because, what do they know? A strikeout is an out, and a walk is a man on first base. If I’m putting the ball in play, chances are, I’m hitting it pretty hard.”

If he could be more selective, Shaw could get on base more and pitchers would start to be a bit too fine. He could feast on mistakes and drive in runs.

As Shaw was toiling away, his hitting coach at Sacramento, Damon Minor, told NBC Sports Bay Area, “He’s a tough kid. He’s from Boston. He’s a hockey player. The best thing about Chris Shaw is that he’s gonna find a way to figure things out.”

*****

Shaw has precious little time to make his case. The club is still pursuing potential $30-million-per-year free agent Bryce Harper, and still hoping to add more outfielders to the mix, having just signed 31-year old Gerardo Parra to a minor league deal.

The organization will have to make several decisions on a position group that’s featured four of its top prospects — Shaw, Austin Slater, Steven Duggar and Mac Williamson — but few true difference-makers so far.

“I’ve been in that spot — not as an outfielder, obviously — but I’m sure they’re waiting to see exactly what’s going to happen now,” manager Bruce Bochy said at the Giants’ media day last week. “We have a young core that I’m sure they’re excited to show what they can do this spring … It’s going to be competitive.”

No one currently in that outfield mix has the pure power potential of Shaw. At 6-foot-3, 226 pounds, he has more home runs over the last three years — 69 — than anyone in the Giants organization, from rookie ball to the big leagues.

Before going down with a strained groin last May, Shaw had 10 home runs in 36 games at Triple-A Sacramento and was slugging .555. He also had 61 strikeouts.

As Shaw was recovering, he got a visit from Giants’ vice president of baseball operations Yeshayah Goldfarb, who was making a swing through Sacramento.

Starting in the mid-2000s, Goldfarb and the nascent Giants analytics department began having meetings with players throughout the system, presenting them with targeted statistical areas of strengths, and areas in which they could improve. As time has gone on, the information has gotten better.

He will usually meet once or twice over the course of the season with individual minor leaguers to share the information the analytics department have gathered. Then, as now, it took time to build up a sufficient sample size, and it takes time to implement any fixes and see results.

The power had always been there for Shaw, but the strikeouts, those were a relatively recent development.

“At a high level, a lot of it was related to plate discipline,” Goldfarb said.

*****

Playing at Boston College, Shaw regularly had to play in the snow during the early part of the college baseball season.

“We had games in college where we would plow the field, and it would literally look like we were in a dome, surrounded by snow banks, 15 feet high, surrounding the whole field,” he said. “Imagine trying to hit with that as your backdrop — white on white.”

Even with that handicap, in 145 games, he struck out 98 times to 58 walks, hit 23 home runs and 32 doubles, slugged .470 and had an on-base percentage of .358.

“I’ve had success everywhere I’ve gone, and had success throughout the minors, but I haven’t necessarily thought that I needed to make any changes,” Shaw said.

In his first three full professional seasons, playing in snow-less Oregon, Virginia, San Jose, Sacramento, and San Francisco, Shaw struck out 401 times.

When Goldfarb sat down with Shaw in Sacramento, he showed the powerful outfielder visualizations of every pitch he’d seen and swung at, every pitch he’d laid off, where that pitch was, inside or outside of the strike zone. It told a story. It educated him.

“It was honestly the first time I’d ever had it broken down to this point,” Shaw said. “It’s good that we have all this data available to us now,” Shaw said. “I knew exactly what part of the zone I didn’t cover well. I knew why I was striking out. I was getting myself into holes way too early, really by swinging at stuff out of the zone.”

*****

When Shaw arrived in San Francisco — the last of the Giants’ four outfield prospects to be promoted to the majors — he struck out 13 times in his first 24 plate appearances with one hit — a pinch-hit home run — and just two walks. Then, he began to implement what he’d learned from Goldfarb.

Over his next 12 games, he struck out just 10 times, walked five times in 38 plate appearances and went 9-for-33 with two doubles. He was making a conscious effort to implement what he learned. He was hunting specific pitches.

“It’s just encouraging, because I feel like I’m just scraping the surface, in terms of potential,” Shaw said. “Now that I’ve had a full offseason to really buy into what they’ve been telling me, and have a plan for this year, I’m really excited.”

It didn’t take long after the season concluded for Shaw to get back to work. He began hitting in November. The cold, of course, didn’t bother him.

“Hockey’s as tough a game as you can play. If you’re not ready to go every day, you’re going to get your ass kicked,” Shaw said. “I didn’t want to [wait], because I had things I knew I wanted to work on. I’m the type of dude that, if something’s fresh on my mind, I’m either writing it down or I’m acting upon it, so I can remember it. I write stuff down all the time. I don’t want to forget.”

With Harper still not signed, and the outfield picture remaining much as it was at the end of last season, Shaw enters spring training as arguably the most intriguing youngster on the roster, and the one with the most to gain from the offseason.

“What it comes down to is if I go out there and I play as well as I can, they’re going to have no choice,” he said. “That’s what you ultimately want to do. You want to force their hand. It’s so out of our control to think about how a roster’s going to be crafted, and where I fit in. All I can control is going out there and playing. When I can think in that mindset, and stay in that mind frame, it helps me relax, it helps me stay in the moment, stay present and ultimately play the best I can.”

No Giants player since Brandon Crawford (21) in 2015 has hit more than 20 home runs, and none since Hunter Pence (27) in 2013 have had more than 25. Shaw could be the first.

“Honestly, for me, it’s just, ‘How do I find a way to get the barrel to the ball more frequently?’” Shaw said. “When I do that, good things happen.”

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