Backfield Banter: 2019 Giants Spring Instructs

On January 8th the San Francisco Giants opened their instructional league camp. The start date is notable, foreshadowing a possible industry trend. The majority of teams open their instructs camps in mid to late September, but teams have dramatically scaled back the duration and intensity of these camps in recent years. Why risk injury to pitchers by having them “waste bullets”  in what amounts to an organized practice? Considering where on the calendar September instructs lie, fatigue from a long season makes injury even more likely. One might assume this line of thinking has been the impetus for shorter camps, moving camps to January, or eliminating them altogether. Several teams have completely scrapped all field aspects of instructs, including the Seattle Mariners, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels and Colorado Rockies.

As you might expect, opening camp this early presents many of the same issues. Is there any sense in subjecting your pitchers to max effort throwing in January? Minor league spring training typically does not kick off until the third week of March. There’s no need to ramp up pitchers, have a one month gap, then have them ramp up again. The activity around Giants camp has reflected that. Practices have been primarily comprised of BP, INF/OF, and PFPs. Yes, I realize the irony of this sentence: these drills are less instructive (for the outside observer) than game action would be, but we can still learn something from them. Let’s walk through some of the important takeaways.

Marco Luciano (SS) - Eighteen days ago the Giants Top 30 dropped on Prospects Live. Regarding Luciano I wrote “Defensively, his hands and reactions look playable in the infield, but future growth will likely force him to third.” Seeing Luciano in instructs has me second-guessing that assessment. His upper body looks lithe-strong, and his legs/lower half are substantially thinner than I expected. Luciano moved o.k. in IF drills, including solid feet around second base. His throws were not max effort, but the shortness of his arm action was promising. You may as well incinerate what I wrote in the Giants top 30; Luciano has a better chance to stick at short than I gave him credit for. Despite high expectations his batting practice still impressed. Luciano projects to plus raw power. His best swings featured a slight uppercut swing plane. He uses his lower half well with substantial torque through the hips. The bat speed was preternatural. The swing produced loft to all fields, including a towering bomb to deep center on a swing that looked about 86.11% max effort. In between rounds, the Giants coaching staff worked with Luciano on the use of his back leg. Given Luciano’s age and physique more weight is undoubtedly on its way, especially in his lower half.

Joey Bart (C) - There wasn’t much to take away from Bart’s BP. He did look thicker and more muscular than you might have thought from looking at video. He is who we thought he was (Dennis Green voice). The swing looked similar to last year’s iteration. The length of his approach was shorter, and his swings were lower-effort, but this is mostly due to the fact that we are comparing BP swings to in-game swings and not indicative of a real change. The bat speed, easy loft and plus power are very evident.

Jairo Pomares (OF) - Who has the smoothest swing in Giants camp? For my money the honor belongs to Pomares. He has a moderately high, aggressive leg kick that propels his lower half. The hands slot around shoulder length with the back elbow raised slightly over his shoulders. In spite of this his hands fly through the zone quickly, simultaneously allowing for loft and a relatively short swing.  In that respect he reminds me of Kyle Isbel; Pomares raises his elbow higher than Isbel, but there are still some parallels. Pomares timed his swings well and consistently found barrels in BP. The bat speed was also comfortably plus. You can only learn so much from BP, but nothing here made me rethink ranking Pomares #11 on the Giants Top 30; he is as advertised.

Jacob Gonzalez (3B) - Watching Gonzalez’s BP, it was evident something was different; he looked smoother and the swing looked easier. But I could not put my finger on how it changed so I used video to break his swing into components ex post facto. Looking at his base stance it’s immediately evident there was more bend in his back leg last season and his stance was also significantly wider. At load Gonzalez still has a decent-sized leg kick, but it is less pronounced than last season when his back leg further collapsed and the front knee twisted backwards. Through approach, Gonzalez’s center of mass is staying on his back leg more so than last year. At slot his legs were much further apart in 2018. As the barrel enters the zone and he makes contact, Gonzalez is more upright and the back leg is less involved. Overall, Gonzalez’s lower half is much quieter and less incorporated. Considering how strong he is, Gonzalez does not need a big leg kick and approach; he projects for plus raw power regardless from his sheer strength. The new swing looks more balanced, and I like how his center of mass is staying back longer, in theory allowing for another split second of reaction time. Take all of this with a grain of salt because BP swings can vary dramatically from game swings, but these changes look promising, and if they carry into game action Gonzalez may swing and miss less.

Luis Toribio (3B) - Last Wednesday the Giants began to use numbers on their shirts. Last Thursday instructs roster with numbers were rendered. The previous night, however, I spent much of the evening scouring Youtube video and cross-referencing heights and weights in an attempt to guess who was who; this was a fun game of deduction, like a baseball Sudoku. It seemed overwhelmingly likely that #83 was Luis Toribio. Of the five third baseman on the Giants instructs roster only one was left-handed. The swing from this @giantsprospects tweet also resembled the swing from my video. Still I questioned myself due to the listed weight. Does this kid look 6’1” 185? I say no and would contend Toribio is north of 200 lbs. The body as a whole looks thicker than this video from last June. His pecs are especially large. Mechanically, Toribio’s swing plane was inconsistent and at times angled downward, but when he did elevate, the ball flew. I wouldn’t read into the inconsistent swing plane too much because it is mid January, but it is still notable. Expect easy plus raw power at maturity, mostly to his pull side. The swing is pull heavy; he attacks the ball out front and his back shoulder and hips close early. Defensively, Toribio looked the part of a third baseman; he moved well enough and looks like a good bet to stick at the position. Last Monday was the first day fielders threw in drills and Toribio aired out a few throws near max effort before the coaches told him to take it easy. His arm strength was plus.

Jalen Miller (2B) - The swing looks different. Check out the below video and compare it to Miller’s swing from July of last season. His legs are not used heavily in either swing but his new swing has ditched the oft-used double toe tap. Miller plants the front foot fairly early then twists his hips in an almost machine-like manner afterwards. It is not a fluid swing; there is an atypically long pause between foot strike and slot, but Miller has plus bat speed and that could potentially make up for a lot.

Manuel Geraldo (SS)

Yorlis Rodriguez (3B) - Who is that guy? He is the guy who turns your head, the guy whose name you do not know, the guy you want to learn everything about, the guy you come to the field for, and the guy you get so much joy from unearthing. For the Giants instructs, Yorlis Rodriguez was that guy. On Thursday, the Giants busted out a drill I had never seen before. It was a modified version of batting practice intended to force hitters to adjust to different speeds. One coach knelt ten feet from home and soft tossed balls to the hitter. A second coach used a pitching machine to fire balls home. They would alternate, in essence testing the timing of the hitter. Rodriguez had the best round of the day with this drill, barreling everything with hard line drives to all fields. Open face video was not possible, but his swing looked short to the ball and compact from my vantage point; it looked conducive to limiting swing and miss. His 2018 K% of 13.7% and BB% of 10.4% also jive with the look from this BP.