DENVER – The Giants marched into a back room for their 4:30 hitter’s meeting Friday afternoon. A few minutes later, hitting coach Hensley Meulens sauntered through the sparsely populated clubhouse.
It was like standing in St. Peter’s Square during a conclave, and watching a cardinal brush past you in his bright red regalia.
“Uhmmm … shouldn’t you be SOMEWHERE ELSE right now?”
“Nope,” said Sir Bam Bam. “I don’t go to hitter’s meetings.”
It’s true. The Giants’ hitting coach hasn’t attended a pregame hitter’s meeting since the opening series last year at Arizona – when the team got smoked for three consecutive losses.
He found that like any group session, players would become inattentive. You don’t need the harsh glare of PowerPoint to drift off. So instead, he lets the players run their own meeting, be responsible for their own video analysis and share tips on that day’s starting pitcher.
Meulens will do his work individually. Either he or assistant hitting coach Joe Lefebvre will check in with each player every day to go over pitchers and pass along keys.
So while the Giants had their hitter’s meeting, Meulens held court with the beat writers for a few minutes, and it was an enlightening chat.
While the rest of baseball is striking out at an all-time high rate, the Giants are last in the National League in whiffs. They’re also third in the NL in runs scored, with 4.66 per game (and that’s entering Friday night, when they almost doubled their average in a 10-9 loss at Colorado).
They’re also last in the NL in pitches per plate appearance, with 3.71. That runs counter to more recent schools of thought, where hitters are encouraged to run deep counts and draw walks. The Houston Astros even encourage their minor leaguers to take 3-2 pitches.
That’s not how Meulens operates. His three tenets of hitting are thus:
--Know your zone and focus on getting pitches to hit in that zone.
--Think line drive down.
--Shorten up with two strikes and make contact.
“Guys bought into it more and more and more,” Meulens said. “It takes awhile to change. Even though we won the World Series my first year, we had a lot of swing-and-miss guys – Uribe, Burrell, Ross. Last year, we only had three guys with 100 strikeouts – Pence, Belt and Gregor Blanco, which is way too much for him. We had to make more contact. If you make contact, something happens. I know, and I’m a guy, a power hitter, who struck out a lot!”
Meulens noted that even Pablo Sandoval and Pence, who are aggressive hitters, are choking up more often with two strikes. And although it sometimes works against the Giants when they hit into double plays, or an opposing starter gets into the late innings with a manageable pitch count, their early-count aggressiveness is leading to consistent runs on the scoreboard.
“I know we’re last in pitches seen,” Meulens said. “But we get a good pitch to hit, often within the first three pitches, and we hit it."
When we talk about baseball being a game of adjustments, it’s usually on a micro-level. Meulens is thinking more macro.
As he pointed out, if you’re seeing a lot of pitches, it stands to reason that you’re hitting with two strikes more often. And demonstrably, compellingly, that does not work to your benefit. Entering Friday, the NL average for all hitters was .249. The NL average for all hitters with a two-strike count (be it 0-2 or 1-2 or 2-2 or 3-2) was .171.
“So why do you want to hit with two strikes?” Meulens said. “Why do you just want to see pitches just to see pitches? The (margin) between last and first (in the league) is like 3.9 and 3.7 (per plate appearance) anyway. So what’s the big difference?”
The Giants, by the way, have had 44.6 percent of their plate appearances go to two strikes. The NL average was 49.9 percent. So yes, they're making contact earlier in the count, on average.
But obviously, you can’t just avoid hitting with two strikes. You’ve got to be ready for those situations, too. And with the Giants choking up, they’ve done a good job of it. Entering Friday, they led the NL with a .201 average with two strikes. (They also led the league with a .269 average overall.)
With two strikes, it's more important than ever to know your zone. Every player has a different zone, Meulens said, and once a month, he’ll print out the Inside Edge scouting reports and show them to each hitter. They’ll be able to see what they’re hitting on different pitches and in different locations.
“Everybody’s is different, and it does change from month to month,” Meulens said. “Pablo, for example. Sometimes Pablo hits the pitch up. But average-wise, it’s not very good. Down in the zone, he kills them. So … look for a pitch down in the zone.”
Just then, the hitter’s meeting broke up, and we thanked Meulens for a most interesting discussion.
Now if we can just get Dave Righetti to skip a pitcher’s meeting, we might expand our understanding in that area, too.
As mentioned elsewhere, and in great detail, the Giants committed four errors in Friday’s loss, and they were ugly ones.
Often times, errors come when a player makes a bad decision, such as Sandoval trying to throw when he had no earthly shot to record an out at first base. Other times, they come when a player simply rushes a play when it wasn’t warranted.
That’s what happened to Madison Bumgarner when he fielded a comebacker from Nolan Arenado and threw the ball well wide and into center field in the second inning.
“I knew who (was running, but) I felt like I needed to rush, which I didn’t,” Bumgarner said. “Just better to take a couple steps and let (shortstop Brandon Crawford) get to the bag and let him turn it, or at least make sure to get the one out.
“That’s on me. We know better. You get lackadaisical sometimes and don’t do what you need to do.”
Bumgarner also chastised himself for not pitching better without his best stuff.
“It wasn’t one of those games where I had real good stuff, but I don’t feel I did a good job with what I had,” he said. “I just muscled up instead of trying to make pitches and have command.”
I snuck over to Colorado’s clubhouse to get Troy Tulowitzki’s view of something that happened in the third inning, when he asked for umpires to examine a ball as Bumgarner held it on the mound. You can read that story here.
I also wanted to see what Tulowitzki, a Bay Area native and Fremont High graduate, thought about finally ending the Giants’ streak of 10 consecutive victories – the Giants’ longest run against any division opponent since divisional play began in 1969.
Tulowitzki was happy, of course. But he didn’t express relief.
“They’re a good team. They’re champions for a reason,” he said. “We knew they were doing things better than us to win those games. Not that it was in our head, but when it comes down to it, they were getting clutch hits and playing better baseball.”
It remains to be seen if the Rockies will be a surprising factor to the end, as the Padres were in 2010. But Giants manager Bruce Bochy sure isn’t taking them for granted.
“They’re a good club,” Bochy said. “We’re not going to win every game. It was a good run but they’re a good team and this is a tough division.”
Besides, it’s not like the Rockies outplayed the Giants to break the streak.
“You look back and we beat ourselves,” Bochy said. “It was that simple.”