Gabe Kapler explains Giants' historic pinch-hitting success

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Kapler explains reason for Giants' pinch-hitting success originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The Giants have gone all-in on advanced analytics and platoons, looking for the tiniest edge in each individual plate appearance. Every move has seemingly been discussed since the previous game ended, with every angle covered by the large and diverse coaching staff. 

But there are times late in games when Gabe Kapler still likes to go old school. Most Giants fans -- and probably the entire city of Philadelphia -- would find this hard to believe, but Kapler does often go with his gut. 

"I've done that more this year than I ever have, to be honest with you," he said during an interview on this week's Giants Talk podcast. "There are some players that are kind of in platoon situations that are very good against the same-handed pitcher. When Darin Ruf is up at the plate and there's a righty on the mound, my gut oftentimes is just like, stick with Darin Ruf, because he's going to give you a great at-bat against a righty.'

"Now there are times when the guy on the bench is specifically there to do that job and I want to get that hitter an opportunity, but yeah, I have (gone with my gut) on several occasions and it feels really good. I enjoy it. I enjoy saying, 'You know, I feel really good about this hitter right now and that's going to override sometimes even significant numbers.'"

Kapler has actually probably gone with his gut more than most this season, simply because he has pinch-hit more than any other manager in the league -- and it's not even close.

The Giants used three more pinch-hitters on Thursday while clinching a sweep, getting to 270 pinch-hit at-bats for the season. The Arizona Diamondbacks are a distant second at 228, and only three other National League teams have even reached 200 pinch-hit at-bats. 

The Giants have embraced this in part by reimagining what it means to be a pinch-hitter. If you're on the bench that day, Kapler doesn't want it viewed that way. It's not a rest day. He prefers to think of his bench as players who are  "kind of specifically on the roster to handle that moment" late in a game. The players become high-value specialists, and perhaps nobody has been a greater example of that than Austin Slater.

The fifth-year outfielder has appeared as a pinch-hitter 30 times, second on the team to Darin Ruf. While Ruf has gotten some additional starts against righties in recent weeks, Slater's role has pretty much stayed consistent. When the Giants face a lefty starter, he starts. When they don't, he waits for his opportunity to draw a walk or try and hit a bomb off a lefty late in the game.

You wouldn't think of Slater as an everyday player, but he's close to it. He has appeared in 109 of 127 games, in large part because he has a .358 OBP and .464 slugging percentage against lefties. 

"Austin is here to do that job specifically," Kapler said. "One of the things that we know he does well is he takes pitches, he walks and he battles against lefties ... the two things that we know with Austin is that he's going to walk and he's going to produce power against left-handed pitching. He's done it for the better part of the last two seasons, so when we send him up to the plate it's with the understanding that he's going to grind a left-handed pitcher down. We know that we have that weapon ready to deploy."

Slater quietly did that Sunday, drawing a walk against tough lefty A.J. Puk before Donovan Solano overshadowed it with a two-run homer. After the game, Kapler made sure to give Slater equal credit for getting the Giants going. A day earlier, it had been Brandon Belt who drew a walk to set up LaMonte Wade Jr.'s heroics

While those two blasts came late -- and made history -- the biggest change with the Giants' pinch-hitters this season is how aggressive Kapler has been in deploying them early in games. You don't get to such a massive league lead by waiting for the ninth, and Kapler has surprised even his bosses with how often he goes for the jugular in the middle of games. It's not uncommon to see Kapler take his shot in the sixth, knowing that's his best chance to get to an opposing bullpen.

"I think what we're considering is the type of hitters that we have, their numbers, their confidence levels, and how they match up against the pitch shapes of the opposing pitcher," he said. 

Overall, the Giants have a .711 OPS from pinch-hitters, which ranks third behind the Rockies and Mets, but their aggression in deploying them has led to plenty of excess value. They lead the Majors with 14 pinch-hit homers, tied for second all-time. They are three from the record the Cardinals set in 2016. They also lead the way with 38 pinch-hit RBI and rank second with 35 walks. 

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The Giants also lead the Majors with 99 pinch-hit strikeouts, and that's where having a short memory pays off. Kapler said that no matter what happens, and whether he relied on the numbers, his coaches, or his own gut feeling, he tries to stay level-headed.

"One thing I try not to get caught up in is the outcomes and results," he said. "Sometimes I feel like it's the right move even if it doesn't work, and I have to think that way, really. It's not going to work like it worked over the weekend very often. That doesn't mean that it's the wrong decision when you send the guy up there and he strikes out looking on three pitches.

"I try to be a little unemotional about it, but there are times when I can't help it and I'm just a fan like anybody else. I feel bad when I don't make the right call and I feel better when my gut leads us in the right direction."

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