Yaz's breakout turned outfield into strength for Giants originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
When Farhan Zaidi hopped on a Zoom call with reporters shortly after a bitter end to the 60-game 2020 MLB season, he brought up a roster need that's become all too familiar at Oracle Park.
The Giants are looking for left-handed help in the outfield. Of course they are. That has been the case since Barry Bonds played his final game, but there's a twist this year: The overall situation isn't nearly as dire as it has been for most of the last decade.
The Giants could use depth, particularly a left-handed masher who could balance the lineup, but the future appears extremely bright in the outfield, and the present situation is much better than Giants fans have grown accustomed to. Last week we looked at the familiar situations at catcher, first base, shortstop and third base, and an emerging starter at second base. Here's a look at the outfield that was much better than you might have realized in 2020.
Giants outfielders ranked fourth in the majors in OPS (.862), seventh in homers (32) and sixth in runs scored (107). They had a higher on-base percentage (.359) than a Los Angeles Dodgers outfield (.347) built around Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger.
That is, uhh, not what you would have expected on Opening Day.
The charge was led by Mike Yastrzemski, who followed a 2019 breakout by simply getting much better. Yastrzemski was one of the top three MVP candidates in the NL at the midpoint and should end up on plenty of ballots. He finished the year ranked seventh in the league in OPS (.968), eighth in extra-base hits (28) and tied for first in triples (four). A year after blasting 21 homers, Yastrzemski had 10 in 54 appearances. He played a solid center field and a good right field and was one of the league's best baserunners, all of which led to him ranking fifth in the NL in WAR (2.7), behind only Freddie Freeman, Betts, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Trea Turner.
Yastrzemski had the biggest hand in the Giants having one of the league's best outfields, but the group was so good overall because there were two others who at times provided the hottest bat in the lineup. Austin Slater had his breakout, posting a .282/.408/.506 line with five homers, two of which came off Clayton Kershaw.
Alex Dickerson's hot streaks are as good as it gets in MLB, and he rode them to a .298/.371/.576 slash line. He tied a career-high with 10 homers, three of which came in a historic six-RBI performance at Coors field. Dickerson didn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for leaderboards, but if he had, his slugging percentage would have put him right between Manny Machado and Tatis Jr.
The Giants have had recent years with a couple of outfield standouts, but this year they added some quality depth.
Darin Ruf had 18 appearances in left field and had a 1.166 OPS in those games. Mauricio Dubon turned into the everyday center fielder and had a .816 OPS out there. The Giants had five outfielders who were better than league average by OPS+, with Yastrzemski, Slater and Dickerson all finishing above 150, which is outstanding.
Yastrzemski came out of nowhere in 2019 and came back a year later noticeably improved at the plate, which certainly was a surprise. It probably surprised a lot of people that Dubon led the team in center field innings and didn't play another position after Aug. 15, but if you paid attention during Summer Camp, you could see that move coming.
The biggest surprise with this group, though, has to be Slater. He's a really talented player and a tireless worker, so the Giants always hoped he would get to this point, but it still was a relief to see him take the leap and start driving the ball. Slater had never had an OPS+ that ranked as league average before, but in 2020 he put up a 152. He tripled his average launch angle, which raised his slugging percentage by nearly 100 points, and became a grinder at the plate, walking 16 times to 22 strikeouts. A year ago, Slater looked like he might be pushed aside by newcomers and incoming prospects, but if he's healthy, he should enter 2021 as Gabe Kapler's leadoff hitter against left-handed pitchers.
You mean, aside from the fact that USA Today misreported Dickerson's COVID-19 interactions and never provided an apology or an update to their story, even after Dickerson talked about the toll that took on his family?
From an on-field standpoint, it would have to be Jaylin Davis, a player the Giants hoped would be this year's Yastrzemski. Davis made the Opening Day roster but went 2-for-12 with six strikeouts before being sent to the alternate site in Sacramento. He never returned, and while the Giants said they still have high hopes, it certainly stood out that Davis disappeared over the final two months of the season.
Yastrzemski got better by fully embracing the new methods at Oracle Park. He would use a virtual reality kit to prepare his eyes for opposing pitchers, and he talked often of how he was embracing the hitting coaches' directive that it's not a bad thing to strike out if you were looking for a pitch that you can drive with two strikes.
Yastrzemski was more selective, lowering his percentage of swings on pitches in the zone by 9.6 percent. Taking all those pitchers' strikes will lead to a lot of two-strike counts, but Yastrzemski had a remarkable season when he was seemingly behind in the count. He hit .270 with two strikes with eight of his 10 homers. In 40 full counts, he had a .417/.650/.708 slash line.
"As the game has progressed you start to not value the strikeout so much from an offensive standpoint," Yastrzemski said. "It's kind of taken a hit in how embarrassing it used to be. We've started to kind of understand the game a little bit.
"Strikeouts looking are not the worst thing in the world anymore, and so to have a team, a manager, an organization tell you that you're having really good at-bats even though you're striking out looking because they're tough pitches, you're going to continue to do that. And then I think you're going to have better at-bats with two strikes."
Prospect to Watch
Most fans know all about Heliot Ramos and Hunter Bishop, who have gone in two different directions this month. Ramos has an oblique injury that's keeping him out of Instructional League action, but he should be in the big league mix at some point next year. Bishop missed Summer Camp with COVID-19, but the reports on him out of the Instructional League are strong. He's apparently crushing opposing pitchers, and the 22-year-old could move quickly next season. He seems likely to start in San Jose.
The new name you should start paying attention to is Alexander Canario. He's the organization's seventh-best prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, and is a 20-year-old with power and a strong arm. Canario hit 16 homers across two levels last year, finishing his season with Salem-Keizer. He opened some eyes in Summer Camp before spending two months learning at the alternate site, where again the reports were strong. If that improvement continues next spring, the Giants could have another top 100 outfield prospect on their hands.
The 2021 Plan
The Giants have an everyday star in Yastrzemski and plenty of pieces, but they need to figure out how to best put them together next season.
Dubon got better and better in center field and crushed lefties, but he'll need to improve against right-handed pitching to become an everyday player out there. His most value to the Giants might still be as a super-utility guy, their version of Chris Taylor and Kiké Hernandez. Dickerson was the opposite, facing just 12 lefties all year. Bringing Ruf -- who is arbitration-eligible -- back could give the Giants a strong platoon in left, the kind they were envisioning with Dickerson and Hunter Pence at one point.
The Giants want to add a left-handed bat, but they should also just add depth in general. The biggest question about this group is health. Dickerson, 30, has never played more than 84 games in a season, and Slater was limited to DH duty the final six weeks because of a recurring elbow issue. The Giants were awfully quiet about the true nature of that injury in September and haven't given an update since the season ended. When Yastrzemski suffered a calf injury, the outfield all of a sudden looked very similar to light-hitting groups of the past.
The Giants have Davis, Steven Duggar and Luis Alexander Basabe in the wings, but they need more depth for 2021, because aside from Ramos, who needs more development, their best outfield prospects still are at the lower levels of the minors.