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, Gillaspie avoid arbitration, settle on salary for 2017

Giants, Gillaspie avoid arbitration, settle on salary for 2017

SAN FRANCISCO -- A year ago at this time, Conor Gillaspie was a 28-year-old free agent. On Wednesday he locked in a solid deal that secures his roster spot for the 2017 season. 

Gillaspie and the Giants avoided arbitration, the team announced Wednesday evening. The two sides agreed to a $1.4 million deal, according to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports. Gillaspie is the third arbitration-eligible Giant to agree to a contract, joining Cory Gearrin and Ehire Adrianza, both of whom settled in early December. The Giants still must come to terms with Eduardo Nuñez, Will Smith and George Kontos, but they have a history of avoiding arbitration hearings. 

Gillaspie should go into the upcoming season as Bruce Bochy's top pinch-hit option and he'll get a chance to compete with Nuñez for time at third base. With Nuñez sidelined by a hamstring injury last October, Gillaspie became Bochy's most dangerous bat. He hit a three-run homer to provide the winning runs in the Wild Card Game at Citi Field. During the NLCS, Gillaspie went 6-for-15 with three more RBI. 

Gillaspie was twice designated for assignment in 2015, but he has nothing to worry about as the new season approaches. The Giants will report to camp on Feb. 14. 

--- In case you missed it, Santiago Casilla's new home is not far from his 2016 home. He agreed to a two-year deal with the A's, his former team. Casilla had a rough final season with the Giants, but his tenure in San Francisco was overall a huge success. He posted a 2.42 ERA in seven seasons and allowed just two earned runs in 25 postseason appearances. He was miscast as a closer this past season, but the stuff is there to again be a very strong setup man. This seems to be a nice deal for both sides.

Giants 2016 Year in Review: In Their Own Words

Giants 2016 Year in Review: In Their Own Words

SAN FRANCISCO — In 2012, my first year on the Giants beat, I ended a quote-driven year-in-review piece with the words of an opponent. It was an easy choice. 

“I was looking slider.” — Miguel Cabrera. 

How the times have changed. The man who threw that title-clinching pitch, Sergio Romo, is still looking for a new home as 2016 comes to an end, and he’s far from alone. With the Giants not expecting to bring any of their free agents back, Romo likely will join 17 others from that 2012 World Series roster who have either retired or moved on to a new team.

There have been other significant changes, too. That 2012 team made the even year titles a thing, and most of that roster was around in 2014 for a third parade. This even-year-in-review piece is a bit different. The even year ended with a crushing loss, one that you could see coming for the previous two months. 

The Giants had the best record in baseball at the All-Star break, but a lack of punch at the plate and inability to close out games dropped them to the Wild Card, and ultimately gave them an extended offseason. Along the way there were good times and bad, no-hitters lost and no-hitters broken up, trainers jokingly thrown under the bus, walk-offs, blown saves, seven-hit games, benches-clearing staredowns, injuries, painful trades, Bumgarner homers, Cueto shimmies, Gillaspie heroics and much, much more. 

Thank you to all the readers/watchers/listeners/tweeters for following along with our coverage through it all. To wrap it all up for 2016, here’s a look back at the year that was, in the words of the Giants themselves:

“He goes, ‘You want me to teach you how to hit homers off Kershaw?’” — Matt Duffy, telling a story about Madison Bumgarner walking into the video room and seeing hitters watching clips of the Dodgers ace. 

“I was just saying, ‘Go ball! Come on!’ I’m not necessarily a power hitter. I thought, oh it’s raining, I might have had a homer except for the rain. I almost fell coming out of the box, but when I saw it land, that was one of my most memorable moments in baseball.” — Trevor Brown, after homering off Chris Hatcher to break up a Dodgers no-hitter. 

“If the reason your rhythm is messed up is that you’re hitting too much, those are some champagne problems. You probably need to worry about something else.” — Jeff Samardzija, after a day full of long rallies by his lineup.

“I think I got caught up in the Giants-Dodgers rivalry a little bit.” — Derek Law, after staring down Justin Turner in his debut.

“Still didn’t go anywhere, man. I’m going to blame that on our strength coach. I didn’t do that extra set last night. Did two sets, should have done that third set. We gotta talk about getting a new strength coach, seriously. Because I got everything and I was in good position. The hitting coach, we need to keep him hired, but the strength coach needs to get out of here. That’s all I got.” — Denard Span.

"The main point of the entire thing is that Carl Kochan, our strength coach, is not doing his job correctly." -- Brandon Belt, after coming up a homer short of the cycle.

"If we had a decent strength coach, I might be able to hit one in the water. ... But we've got Carl.” — Brandon Crawford, on a homer that came up just short of McCovey Cove.

“Geoff Head. He’s our sports scientist. He was in the weight room with me last night when I was lifting. It it was Carl, that might have been a double.” — Joe Panik, continuing the theme Span started weeks earlier. 

"I think he's better looking than I am.” — Duffy, on his bobblehead.  

“He’s very, very smart. Even in a short time, he’s one of the best I’ve seen in reading swings.” — Buster Posey, on working with Johnny Cueto.  

“His results have been remarkable, as advertised.” — Hunter Pence, when asked about Cueto early in the season. 

"He's been everything we thought — and more.” — Bruce Bochy, after Cueto’s last regular season start.

"They thought they were putting me to sleep. They were locking me in. They were locking me in and they didn't know it.” — Crawford, after homering on a day the Padres played boy band hits during BP to mess with the Giants. 

“I think I can pitch to lefties. It shows the manager didn’t have faith in me.” — Santiago Casilla, after Bochy pulled him with one out remaining against the Diamondbacks.  

“He was leaving and I said, ‘Hey, Santiago, come back here … No, you can go.’” — Bochy, on that moment with Casilla. (More on this to come.) 

"Everybody on the team will be pulling for him. The staff, myself, the organization. We can't thank him enough for what he did for us.” — Bochy, after Tim Lincecum signed with the Angels.

“There are moments in these games you want to hold onto and remember for the rest of your life and tonight was one of those.” — Ryan Vogelsong, on his return to AT&T Park with the Pirates. 

“He’s big, bad Madison Bumgarner. Does it get old? No. That’s just him.” — Crawford, after Bumgarner argued with Wil Myers. 

“Nothing, I just wanted to get mad for a minute.” — Bumgarner, when asked what led to the squabble with Myers. 

“Boch is going to be in the Hall. I didn’t fight him too hard.” — Samardzija, after he was pulled three outs shy of a third straight complete game for the starting staff.  

"I like the phrase, 'Be a fountain,' and lift these guys up and at the same time do the work to get back. The good news is there's going to be a lot of the season when I get back. That's exciting.” — Pence’s reaction to having hamstring surgery.. 

"He would have had to put it in a pretty good place.” — Duffy, when told that Posey tried to bunt for a hit.

“Speedy over there scores from first a lot.” — Crawford, nodding toward Posey and giving credit for his team-leading RBI total in the first half. 

“I felt he may have lost a little bit of confidence in me. I just wanted to go to him and say that I want to be that guy who you want to come up in big spots for the team. 'Don’t lose confidence in me. I know I haven’t gotten the job done. But I’m going to fight for you.'” — Mac Williamson, explaining why he went into Bochy’s office for a meeting the day before he homered off David Price. 

“That one had to take a timeout.” — Posey, on why he angrily tossed a bat toward the dugout after an out.

“It was appropriate having this type of game, a tortuous game.” — Bochy, after the Giants got a walk-off to give him 800 wins with the Giants.

“He earned this. He’s a pretty good hitter and he’s facing a lefty. It really wasn’t a tough call. This wasn’t done to have fun or make a joke of it. He’s a pretty good hitter.” — Bochy, on letting Bumgarner become the first pitcher in 40 years to intentionally hit instead of the DH. 

“That was definitely pretty special that we got a chance to do that. I’m glad I didn’t make him look stupid.” — Bumgarner, after his double that night. 

“Belt is going to hit a homer tonight. He had his home-run swing in there.” — BP pitcher Chad Chop, as he walked out of the cage before a June game. Belt homered off Julio Urias two hours later.

“I don’t know what they were thinking throwing at Buster, but I think it was pretty obvious. That kind of fired me up. I wanted to make them pay. I’m not going to sugarcoat it.” — Crawford, on a home run that came shortly after the Diamondbacks threw at Posey. 

“I mean, they had me ride a horse on the field, so if they trust me with something like that with 40-some-thousand people going crazy and I can’t do baseball activities, that’s a little bit different." — Bumgarner, on the perception that he could get hurt in a HR Derby. 

“Right into the glove — I definitely wasn’t trying to do that. It doesn’t look real. It just doesn’t look real.” — Posey, on a throw back to the mound that landed in Jake Peavy’s glove as he looked elsewhere. 

"Canada hates me. I love Canada! I don’t know what the deal is. But they do not like me, and I’m not sure what happened. I love Shania Twain.” — Belt, on finishing fifth (last) in Canada in the All-Star Final Vote.

“It’s one box he hasn’t checked off. He’s done just about everything else. We were pulling for him so hard.” — Bochy, on Bumgarner once again flirting with a no-hitter. 

“Yeah, yeah — you always know how many hits you have. I don’t care how long the game is.” — Crawford, when asked if he knew he was batting for a seventh hit. 

"I went from making the coolest play of my career at the beginning of the game to the worst. I always say this game will humble you.” — Posey, on a night when he threw behind a batter’s back to second and later slid face-first into third. 

“Some nice high-class Bud Light. And it was perfect.” — Matt Cain, on the celebration of his 100th win. 

“The competition on the premium people is going to be real stiff and it already is. You know you’re going to hurt somewhere, it’s just how much pain you’re going to take.” — Brian Sabean, a week before the trade deadline. 

“Mixed emotions (and) I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t heartbroken about leaving the group of guys and fans in SF. But I’m also excited about the opportunity to help push the Rays over the top and be a contender in the AL East.” — Duffy, via text, after the trade to the Rays. 

“I would go with Belt. When they try coming inside on him, he’s got that kind of power.” — Panik, when I asked during the spring about the next Splash Hit. 

"I did it. I did it.” — Belt, with his arms raised, as he walked into the clubhouse following the 69th Splash Hit.

“I definitely wanted to be the one, absolutely. There’s not a person in here who didn’t want to be the one. I keep on thinking it’s going to be one those things where it’s going to be up there for like three days and then somebody is going to hit 70.” — More from Belt. (After more than a year without a Splash Hit, Span put another one in the water five days later.)

“You can’t take it for granted and you can’t get comfortable. There are a couple of teams that are going to give you a run for it.” — Bumgarner, talking about the NL West lead on the first day of the second half.

“You’ve got to be big boys. You put your big boy pants on and come out there and be ready to go tomorrow and keep fighting.” — Bochy, after one of many late-July losses. 

“We’ve met, we’ve done everything. You’ve got to stand behind them and know they’re going to come out of it. It better be sooner than later.” — Bochy on Aug. 5 as the slide continued. 

“The alarm has been there for a while. I don’t know if there’s any more sense of alarm just because you’re out of first.” — Posey, when the Giants dropped out of first on Aug. 16. 

“Tomorrow is a new game. Tomorrow is a new game. We’re tired of saying it and you guys are tired of asking, I’m sure. But that’s the way you've got to think.” — Crawford, after another tight loss to the Cubs on Sept. 2. 

“I hope that we do. That’s how you find out if you have coconuts.” — Cueto, when asked if he wanted to see the Cubs in the postseason. 

“You’ve got to win the games you’re supposed to win.” — Bochy, after blown save No. 25 on Sept. 7.

“We’re going to use everybody and put out the guys we think are the right guys to get us through the inning.” — Bochy, going to closer-by-committee on Sept. 9. 

“So far the second half has been something like I’ve never seen before, and a lot of guys who have been around are saying the same thing.” — Bumgarner on Sept. 14, after a sweep by the Padres.

“I’ve never had that moment before (where I’m getting booed). I had it now. I’m working to pitch better. It’s a game and you keep working and you put it in the past. I feel bad because I’ve never had that moment before. I tried to do my best.” — Casilla, after getting booed off the mound in mid-September. 

“You know it’s coming, so we’re battling for the wild card. That was inevitable with the way the second half has gone. That was going to happen and you understand that. Sure, you always hope to win the division, but right now the focus is to keep winning games and get there and have a shot at it.” — Bochy, when the division was officially lost on Sept. 25. 

“Who cares about the way? Where we are is on the way to where we want to be. We want a chance to win the Wold Series, and we get that chance.” — Pence, when the Giants clinched the second Wild Card spot on the last day of the season. 

“I’d be lying to you if I said I had words to describe that moment. Absolutely incredible, I guess, is the best that I can do. You know, as a kid and as a player at this level, you look forward to just getting a hit in the postseason just to help your team. Wow. I mean, I’m a lucky guy.” — Conor Gillaspie, after his Wild Card homer. 

“Conor, I appreciate the hell out of that.” — Bumgarner to Gillaspie in the Citi Field dugout. 

“He keeps making history. He keeps making history, and it’s remarkable.” — Pence, on Bumgarner’s Wild Card performance. 

“We’re hard to kill.” — Bumgarner, after Game 3 of the NLDS. 

"I'll let you know in the ninth.” — Bochy, before Game 4, when beat writers asked him who his closer was. 

“It happened so fast. I felt we had control of the game. In five minutes, everything changed.” — Gillaspie, after Game 4. 

“It’s a little strange. We’re a victim of our own success here. You don't expect to go home when you’re wearing this Giants uniform.” — Javier Lopez, after Game 4. 

“This is the type of thing that makes you love baseball. Because you really have to love it to come back after something like this.” — Matt Moore, after Game 4.