How Caleb Baragar made most of last summer's big Giants opportunity

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Alex Pavlovic
·5 min read
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How Baragar made most of last summer's chances with Giants originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

In the months leading up to the 2020 MLB season, Caleb Baragar got used to waiting for a call that wouldn't come.

Baragar hoped to get added to the Giants' 40-man roster after the 2019 season, but on deadline day he followed an online tracker all day and never saw his name. A few weeks later, he hoped to get a chance on someone's 40-man, but the early-morning Rule 5 Draft came and went at the Winter Meetings without any news. 

Last July, Baragar's girlfriend (he has since successfully proposed) and some friends were going to Big Bear Lake for the weekend, but he skipped the trip because the Giants were about to announce their roster for Sumer Camp and he didn't want to take any risks in case he was on the list and would soon be leaving for San Francisco. That day also passed without any good news. 

A few days into that camp, though, the Giants added Baragar and right-hander Sam Wolff as depth bullpen options, which finally led to career-altering news when Baragar least expected it. Baragar had no thoughts of making the roster that month, and when manager Gabe Kapler called him into his office on the last day of camp he was just hoping for some positive feedback.

"I wanted to show them that I had put the work in and used camp as a showcase," Baragar said this spring. "The last thing I thought was that they would tell me I made the team. Gabe told me and I was really happy I was wearing a mask because I was smiling so big."

Baragar wasn't just a surprise addition to the Opening Day roster. He ended up sticking in the big leagues the entire season, and he quietly had a breakout campaign. The overall numbers don't jump off the page, but that's not too surprising for a young starter-turned-reliever who was thrown into tense situations after making only three career appearances in Triple-A. 

Baragar gave up 10 earned runs in his first eight appearances, but after a particularly rough outing in Houston on August 12, he threw 16 consecutive shutout appearances to end his rookie season. Opposing hitters batted just .143 off Baragar the final five weeks as he steadily climbed the bullpen depth chart.

Baragar gave up four runs in that August 12 appearance. He said the biggest change afterward was a huge boost in confidence, much of which came from his manager. 

"When I came out of the game Kap came to me right away to talk to me, and he was really positive. He helped me get through that little shock of hanging up a four-spot," Baragar said. "It was just the extra confidence from him that he believed in me and the Giants still believed in me, and all of a sudden I'm not (being sent) down.

"The fact that they stuck with me and gave me that extra confidence helped me turn a corner."

Baragar became a trusted weapon in large part because of a pitch with unique characteristics. He threw his fastball three-quarters of the time, and while the pitch has solid velocity at an average of 93.8 mph, there are other metrics that stand out. Baragar was in the 92nd percentile in fastball spin rate and ranked seventh in the big leagues in vertical movement, just behind guys like Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler and Liam Hendriks.

When Baragar was in the minors, Matt Daniels, the organization's pitching science coordinator, told him that because of the spin rate and the fact that his fastball -- which college teammates used to joke was an "invisiball" in a less data-driven time -- appeared to have more "rise," he should be throwing it up in the zone, not down as he always had. 

Farhan Zaidi cited those "interesting fastball characteristics" when Baragar made the team, and the big league staff doubled down. Baragar was given a card that was supposed to have instructions for specific batters, but it was blank. 

"They just said 'throw the ball as hard as you can at the top of the zone and we'll see what happens,' " he said.

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That worked for most of his rookie year, but this spring has been about adjustments, including a potentially major one. Baragar was a starter in the minors and prefers that role, and before the spring he asked to be stretched back out. The Giants, loaded with veteran left-handed relief options, were up for it -- until a hamstring tweak shut Baragar down for a couple weeks.

Baragar returned Tuesday night and struck out a batter in a scoreless frame, but Kapler said it might be hard to get him into a bulk innings role right now.

"We still want to see him get up and down and maybe at some point we'll continue to stretch him out," he said. "There's no ending an experiment in any shape or form, but there's a step, and that step is getting him on the mound healthy and seeing where we are once we determine that he's good to go."

The experimenting earlier in camp should help Baragar no matter what role he takes on this season. His fastball is his bread and butter but he wanted a more consistent breaking ball, and this spring he has been working on shapes and movement profiles of a curve and a slider, the latter of which was particularly sharp early in camp. 

This camp is Baragar's first at Scottsdale Stadium, and this past offseason there was no reason to wait for a call with good news. He's firmly in the mix now, regardless of what his final role ends up being.

"I feel like that's for them to decide and not for me," Baragar said. "I'm just confident that I'll be able to help the team somewhere."

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