Why Giants are seeing more interest from free-agent hitters originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
When Farhan Zaidi took over as Giants president of baseball operations late in 2018, he decided to keep the glass half full when talking about the challenges that Oracle Park presents. Zaidi knew it would be hard to convince hitters to come to San Francisco, but he didn't care. He simply focused on the positive that Oracle Park could be an ideal landing spot for the other half of the market, the pitchers.
"Especially for guys looking for short-term deals, it's very attractive," he said a couple of years ago.
The Giants have taken advantage of that repeatedly, and in the meantime, a lot has changed at Oracle Park. The park has a new name. There are new dimensions. There might be new wind patterns. And there's a new coaching staff, one that got the best out of every type of hitter in 2020.
That all has added up to perhaps the biggest change for the Giants in two years under this new regime. As odd as it sounds, the Giants believe they are becoming a destination for free-agent hitters.
"I think the tide has turned there pretty significantly," Zaidi said last week. "And it's sort of a reason for optimism as we look at that market."
For two decades, the Giants have ventured into free agency knowing they would have to overpay to bring a position player to Oracle Park, as tough an environment for hitters as any in the game. At the top of the market -- the Bryce Harpers of the world -- that meant potentially guaranteeing tens of millions in additional salary. When it came to smaller fish, forget about it.
It's easy to see why a Kevin Gausman or Drew Pomeranz would be drawn to Oracle Park, and both talked after their deals about how attractive the dimensions were. But for that class of position player, there has never been any reason to consider playing in San Francisco, where you traditionally have been guaranteed to have a down year.
The Giant got by in large part by developing their own stars, and when they stumbled upon a player who worked in their ballpark they overpaid -- think Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro -- to keep him around, or locked him up -- Hunter Pence -- before he could get back on the market.
The majority of the time and money in free agency was spent bolstering the pitching staff, all of which led to a bloated payroll and ultimately to Zaidi taking over and bringing in a new staff.
In the first year under Gabe Kapler and hitting coaches Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind, the Giants bumped their scoring at Oracle Park from 3.35 runs per game (last in the Majors) to 5.45. They hit 51 homers at Oracle Park in 33 games, nearly matching the 63 they hit in all of 2019. They raised their batting average at home from .229 to a normal .273.
The new staff got the most out of Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford and saw continued development from guys like Mike Yastrzemski, Alex Dickerson and Austin Slater. But perhaps the most important change when it comes to the free-agent market was how newcomers on smaller deals flourished.
Wilmer Flores was much better at Oracle Park (.898 OPS) than on the road (.740). Darin Ruf is the exact type of slugger you would expect to traditionally avoid signing with the Giants, but he had a 1.017 OPS at home and a .720 mark on the road. Four of Ruf's five homers came at Oracle Park.
Those are the types of success stories Zaidi and Scott Harris can take to agents and their players, although they won't necessarily swing big this offseason. Zaidi reiterated last week that he's working around the margins and looking for complementary pieces.
"We're pretty happy with our position player group," he said. "We think they did a terrific job, and there's maybe a role here or there that we may look to fill, but overall we think we have the makings of a really strong offense."
The staff believes it can squeeze more out of this group, and the top hitting prospects -- Joey Bart, Marco Luciano, Heliot Ramos, etc. -- are not far away. They will show up to a ballpark that's playing livelier than in the past, although the Giants have not yet announced if they'll keep the arches closed, which seemed to be an important boost for the lineup. Regardless of what happens there, there's little doubt this new staff seems well equipped to get the most out of hitters, and that has made Zaidi's conversations with agents a bit easier. At some point, when they're ready to jump back in on the big fish and add to the next core, the Giants should find less resistance.
"I think everybody recognizes that the park played pretty neutral to even favorably at times for hitters," he said. "There's been a lot written -- and justifiably so -- about the hitting (coaches) at the major league level and the work that they did, and our continued emphasis on major league development, having that theme out there and having case studies of guys that really took a step forward this year.
"I have noticed a lot more interest from position players or a lot more willingness to sign with us based on what they saw from the organization over the past year."