SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On a rainy morning early in camp, George Kontos walked through the clubhouse at Scottsdale Stadium with an oversized envelope in his hand. Often times that’s bad news, the sign of a player who has been handed MRI results. For Kontos, it was a sign of his standing in the bullpen.
With the Core Four era officially over, Kontos has picked up where his longtime teammates left off. He has taken over for Javier Lopez as the Giant who organizes spread pools, squares, team golf tournaments and bullpen dinners. He has at times taken on Jeremy Affeldt’s role as a target of clubhouse jokes. When the Giants return home, it will be Kontos who takes Sergio Romo’s spot as the catcher for the first pitch.
“I wouldn’t mind doing that, so I’m sure that’s something I’ll do as well,” he said, noting that he caught Draymond Green and Metallica last season. “Whenever Sergio wasn’t available for some events they would ask me to do it.”
For the rest of the responsibilities, Kontos won’t have to be asked. With Lopez and Affeldt retired and Romo and Santiago Casilla pitching elsewhere, Kontos is all of a sudden the longest-tenured member of the bullpen, and it’s not particularly close.
Mark Melancon and Will Smith are in camp for the first time. Derek Law and Steven Okert are coming off rookie seasons. Josh Osich and Cory Gearrin have two seasons with the Giants and Hunter Strickland has three. Kontos is entering his sixth season in San Francisco. Not bad for a pitcher who shuttled repeatedly between San Francisco and Triple-A Fresno from 2012-2014.
“I think it goes to show that hard work and doing your job and following the example of the guys who were here actually works,” Kontos said. “If you keep your head down and work hard and do your job, good things tend to happen.”
When Kontos first showed up in 2012, he was put between Lopez and Affeldt in the clubhouse. Every spring thereafter, Kontos was asked if he wanted to move to a different locker. He never did, and as Affeldt neared retirement, he saw in Kontos a player who could one day pick up the leadership baton for the bullpen.
“Most guys don’t really want that role, even if they have time. A lot of guys just want to pitch, but there’s so much more to a team than just pitching,” Affeldt said. “George has kind of always shown leadership in different ways. He was the guy that ran the hardest or worked out more than anyone else, and we always ripped on him for it, but that’s also a part of his drive to be the best and it shows the discipline that leaders have.”
At a recent event for sponsors, Kontos found that the ribbing isn’t limited to the clubhouse. “I guess I’m the new Affeldt,” he said, laughing, after taking a series of jabs during speeches from other members of the organization. That’s not a bad thing, not after a second-half slide during which Giants coaches and executives privately lamented the lack of energy and joy in the clubhouse. The original Affeldt believes the role is a key one.
“The reason you want to be able to be ripped on is that you want to show that to the younger guys,” Affeldt said. “If I don’t talk to you, I don’t like you. If I’m making fun of you, we’re just having fun. We’re ribbing like brothers.”
The back-and-forth can help a team get through the 162-game grind. While Kontos has grown comfortable in that respect, he has found new ways to grow on the field.
“When he first got here he was predominantly a four-seam guy, and he two-seamed it a little and threw a lot of sliders,” pitching coach Dave Righetti said. “He can cut it now. He can still use his slider. He’s got a changeup and he threw a nice curveball last year. He’s adapted. He can keep pitching, and if he stays in shape, for quite a while. A lot of hitters are one-way type of guys now and George is able to do different things now to different guys. He’s done a hell of a job doing that.”
Kontos threw his four-seam fastball 44 percent of the time when he broke into the big leagues, but that dropped to 12 percent last season, per BrooksBaseball.net. He threw his two-seamer a career-high 22 percent of the time last season, and his cutter — a pitch he didn’t prominently feature until 2014 — 33 percent. In his first full season with the Giants, 51 percent of Kontos’ pitches were sliders; last season it was 22 percent. Throw in the curveball and changeup and you’ve got a starter’s repertoire coming out of the bullpen.
Kontos came into professional baseball as a starting pitcher, but he has quietly been one of the more effective relievers in the National League over the past three seasons, ranking 15th among NL relief pitchers with a 2.49 ERA. Over the past two years, he ranks in the top 20 in the league in relief outings (130) and innings (126 2/3).
That durability has put Kontos in an odd spot. The pitchers he learned from were late-innings guys, but Kontos has been viewed as a better fit for the sixth and seventh. He often comes on with a starter’s runners on base, and Bruce Bochy knows he can ask Kontos to warm up multiple times without worrying about him being down for the count.
“He’s been a staff-saver,” said Righetti.
That has led to a long career in orange and black. With tenure comes added responsibility, and in a rebuilding bullpen, Kontos is ready to fill in for role models who have since departed.
“With Javi gone now, it’s one of those things that whether you want it or not, you’re going to be one of the guys,” Affeldt said. “And he has the background to step up and do that leadership stuff.”