Giants

Postseason star Gillaspie continues to work on becoming impact defender

Postseason star Gillaspie continues to work on becoming impact defender

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Conor Gillaspie will forever be remembered in San Francisco for his home run in the Wild Card Game and his ability to turn on an Aroldis Chapman fastball in the NLDS, but the skill that might mean the most for his career going forward was on display during a far quieter moment.

In the fifth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS, Addison Russell pulled a fastball down the line. Gillaspie backhanded the ball as it took an awkward and high bounce, and he quickly set his feet, one on the dirt and one on the edge of the grass in foul territory at Wrigley Field. He fired a perfect strike across the diamond, nailing the young shortstop by half a step. 

Once viewed as a potential issue at third base, Gillaspie was a steady presence when Eduardo Nuñez went down late with a hamstring injury. Throw in the quick, clutch bat and you’ve got a player the Giants will count on as a key member of the bench going forward. 

“He played a real nice third base for us,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “That was the knock on Conor and it got to the point where they were calling him a liability, (but last year) it got to the point where he played a nice third base and was solid over there.”

Advanced metrics consistently showed Gillaspie as a below-average defender in his first stint with the Giants and later years with the White Sox and Angels. According to FanGraphs, Gillaspie entered the 2016 season with negative 30 defensive runs saved. Among the 35 big leaguers who played at least 1,000 innings at third base in 2014 and 2015, Gillaspie ranked 34th in defensive runs saved and UZR (ultimate zone rating). Last season, he was worth five defensive runs saved in 304 innings, and the rest of his defensive metrics crossed over to the positive side of the ledger, too. After making 14 errors in 2015, Gillaspie had just two last season.

“The eye test tells the story, too,” said bench coach Ron Wotus, who works with the organization’s infielders. “He’s using his feet better than in the past. He figured out the best angles to throw the ball. The most important thing is confidence as a defender, and he’s worked extremely hard and he sees the benefit of him continuing to do those things. It’s gotten to the point this spring where I need to back him off a little. He loves to take grounders out there.”

Wotus has a well-earned reputation for his work with infielders. He has helped develop talented players like Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik into Gold Glove winners. His daily work with Matt Duffy helped turn a shortstop into a Gold Glove finalist at third base in a matter of months. The front office never worried about third base in the offseason in part because of a belief that Wotus can help Nuñez grow at the position.

In Gillaspie, Wotus has found a player who is every bit the grinder he is. Gillaspie is famous for the amount of work he puts in in the cage, and on a recent day in camp, unable to throw because of some minor soreness, he instead spent most his time breaking in a glove with a mallet-like instrument. Working with Wotus has been a perfect fit. 

“His willingness to go out and work every day is unsurpassed by anybody that I’ve ever been around,” Gillaspie said recently during an interview that runs in full on our Giants Insider Podcast. “It’s almost like he’s a player. He wants to do it every day with you and to help you and to answer questions.”

Wotus identified minor fixes when Gillaspie returned to the Giants last spring, after getting released by both the White Sox and Angels the year before. He thought Gillaspie was often in-between on his throws, and he didn’t have his feet lined up correctly. Gillaspie can still be prone to an extra step or two, but he continues to get smoother over time. Basic drills are a part of every day at the park. 

“The big thing we talk about is catch, set, and throw,” Wotus said. “You don’t want to be in a hurry. Just field the ball, use the fundamentals. He’s bought into it and you see the difference.”

Wotus and Gillaspie focus on doing the simple things right during drills. The rest is instinct, as Gillaspie showed while tumbling over the dugout rail for a stunning catch during the final week of the season.

Gillaspie’s natural instincts at the plate should again make him a key part of Bochy’s bench. For all the drilling and cage work, you can’t teach a player to turn on a 102 mph fastball. Months later, teammates still marvel at Gillaspie’s ability to pull a Chapman heater into Triples Alley for a go-ahead triple in the eighth inning of Game 3. 

“As a right-handed bat, to handle that kind of fastball is tough. But a guy from the left side, you don’t see it very often,” Bochy said. “It takes a quick swing. It takes a guy with confidence, who wants to go in there and mean business. He saved our skin, because we lost Nuney. As his confidence grew, he really started to get his swing.”

Giants lineup: Span back in center, batting third vs Dodgers

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AP

Giants lineup: Span back in center, batting third vs Dodgers

Even with the Giants facing a left-handed pitcher Saturday night vs. the Dodgers, Bruce Bochy is going with Denard Span as his three-hitter.

San Francisco Giants (60-94)

1. Gorkys Hernandez (R) LF
2. Joe Panik (L) 2B
3. Denard Span (L) CF
4. Buster Posey (R) C
5. Hunter Pence (R) RF
6. Brandon Crawford (L) SS
7. Kelby Tomlinson (R) 3B
8. Ryder Jones (L) 1B
9. Madison Bumgarner (R) P

Los Angeles Dodgers (98-56)

1. Chris Taylor (R) CF
2. Corey Seager (L) SS
3. Enrique Hernandez (R) LF
4. Yasiel Puig (R) RF
5. Logan Forsythe (R) 3B
6. Austin Barnes (R) C
7. Kyle Farmer (R) 1B
8. Charlie Culberson (R) 2B
9. Hyun-Jin Ryu (R) P

As Dodgers celebrate, Bochy turns eyes to franchise-altering talent

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USATSI

As Dodgers celebrate, Bochy turns eyes to franchise-altering talent

LOS ANGELES — The Giants left their dugout quickly after Friday’s loss, escaping a celebration on the mound and a fireworks show in the sky. As Dodger Stadium shook with cheers, Bruce Bochy sat in the visiting clubhouse and smiled. He nodded at his laptop, which earlier had been used to pull up highlights of Japanese two-way star Shohei Otani. 

“He’s good,” Bochy said, laughing. “I absolutely would play him every day.”

Earlier in the week, when it became known that Bobby Evans and Jeremy Shelley were headed to Japan to scout Otani, Bochy said he couldn’t imagine a player pitching and then moving to the outfield between starts. What changed? 

Perhaps it was the tape Bochy saw. Otani throws 100 mph and hits homers with ease. Or perhaps it was the game he watched Friday. The Giants lost for the 94th time, with the big blow coming from a 22-year-old Dodgers star. Cody Bellinger’s blast was the difference in a 4-2 win, and the Giants don’t have a Bellinger, or anything close. Otani, 23, is a long shot for a team that very well could finish with the worst record in baseball. Still, he’s the kind of talent that could help pull the Giants closer in a hurry. He’s the  kind of talent they haven’t developed in years, and Bochy certainly sounded a bit wistful as he talked of the power Bellinger has put on display. 

“You call up a guy and he does that — that just doesn’t happen,” he said. “It’s a rare deal.”

The ninth inning of the Dodgers’ clincher reinforced that point for the Giants. They got a homer from Pablo Sandoval, but he’s playing only because Christian Arroyo — the Giants’ best prospect bet this year — is hurt. Ryder Jones, their 23-year-old prospect, struck out to end the night, dropping his average to .180. 

That set off a celebration for Bellinger and the Dodgers. They have won five straight NL West titles, with three of the last four clinched against the Giants. 

“Congrats to them,” Bochy said. “They’ve had a tremendous year across the board, and they’ve played great baseball. They brought some guys up that really did a great job for them. It’s well deserved.”

Bochy said it was not difficult to watch this one. The division has been wrapped up for months, with only a September slide keeping the Dodgers from clinching earlier. 

“We knew what we were facing here,” Bochy said. 

The Giants have two more against the Dodgers and then six more before a long winter. The Dodgers, on the other hand, will host an NLDS series here at Dodger Stadium. Both Bochy and starter Jeff Samardzija made the same observation, that the Dodgers will have a hard time cutting their deep roster down to 25 postseason players. 

That’s a nice problem to have. It’s a foreign one right now for the Giants, who have a serious talent gap and no clear solutions internally. It’s no wonder, then, that Bochy has all of a sudden become so intrigued by a wondrous talent overseas.