Why Giants focused on winning 'time of possession' battle in 2021 season

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Alex Pavlovic
·5 min read
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Kapler borrows football term for one of Giants' 2021 mottos originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The walls of Gabe Kapler's office at Scottsdale Stadium were covered with depth charts and projected lineups and everything else you might expect. But on a dry erase board, in bright green ink, there was an all-caps message you would more likely see in a football locker room.

"WIN TIME OF POSSESSION."

There's no clock in baseball, but there always have been plenty of stopwatches in the dugout, and the Giants are putting them to good use. On this week's "Giants Talk" podcast, Kapler explained why winning time of possession was an emphasis this spring and will be a big part of the plan during the 2021 MLB season. 

"It is a football thing, but for us it means controlling the pace of the game, it means leaving their defense out on the field as long as possible, because defenders tend to get frustrated, and they get bored, and their mind tends to wander," Kapler said. "You only have so much attention in a three-and-a-half-hour game, so putting them on defense makes it more likely they're going to make an error, it makes it more likely that a pitcher is going to throw too many pitches and a pitching change is going to have to occur. On our side, we just want to grind down the opponent."

The Giants will do that first and foremost with one of the league's deeper lineups. It may not be the most talented, or the most powerful, but the Giants intend to wear opposing pitchers down one through eight.

It starts at the top with Tommy La Stella, the newcomer who had the lowest strikeout rate in the big leagues last year and was 32nd in MLB in pitches per plate appearance (4.12). A lot of nights, Mike Yastrzemski (24th at 4.19) will be right behind him, followed by Brandon Belt, who has been working counts for a decade. 

What will differentiate this year's group from last year's is the bottom of the lineup. The Giants could have Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford hitting sixth and seventh a lot of times, and likely No. 8 hitter Mauricio Dubon was one of the most improved players in camp, working long plate appearances and drawing 10 walks in 16 Cactus League appearances. 

The Giants ranked third among MLB teams with a .348 on-base percentage in spring training. They hope to see that carry over. 

"Guys are laying off tough pitches, working some deep counts, getting on base, and then the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark is there as well," Posey said. "From my vantage point as a catcher, those are tough lineups to face, when guys lay off tough pitches and work counts and then still have the ability to drive the ball. It's usually a recipe for some good offense."

The other side is just as important, and multiple pitchers stepped into the Zoom Room this spring and told reporters they were working on their pace on the mound. Kapler repeatedly praised 22-year-old reliever Kervin Castro and said he should be up at some point this year, and aside from the upper 90s fastball and big curve, it's easy to see why. When Castro got a clean inning in a televised game late in March, he threw his first three pitches in 21 seconds.  

"What's so cool about a guy like Castro is that not only is he pounding the strike zone, but he's working extraordinarily fast," Kapler said. "When things are going the way they should, he's throwing strikes, balls are in play quickly, we're off the field on defense and we feel like we're going to win time of possession for that inning."

Castro, a former catcher, said he's trying to help his fielders stay sharp, and whenever he's up in the big leagues he might have the fastest pace in MLB. The Giants don't need the rest of their pitchers to work that quickly, but they do have some guidelines. Kapler said he does take the stopwatch out during innings to see how his pitchers are doing with pace.

"If you see a guy in that 15-second range, things are going really well," he said. "It starts to get really boring in baseball when a guy is like, 25, 27, 30 seconds between pitches, and if that pitcher is not throwing strikes those innings can take a really long time."

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Kapler said it sometimes looks like a pitcher is "scared to throw a pitch" when the pace slows, which was certainly something that stood out with some younger Giants pitchers in tight spots last season. The hope is that this season is a bit different, with long at-bats, short innings by pitchers, and infielders who are constantly ready for the next pitch. 

"I think that's something team-wide that we've tried to focus on and I have noticed a difference," Posey said. "This isn't necessarily anything new. I think it's always been beneficial to work fast, but like a lot of things I think it's always good to have reinforcements, because sometimes we tend to forget about some of those small things that make a big difference."

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