SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Center fielder Angel Pagan left the Giants on Saturday and headed to Florida for the World Baseball Classic, saying that, as far as he knows, he'll be batting leadoff for Puerto Rico, but that he's flexible.
If you're Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez, though, why mess with a good thing?
The Giants dabbled last summer with using Pagan in the middle of the order before making him a fixture in early August at the top of the lineup, where he thrived as they made their run to the World Series.
Last season, Pagan's OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) was more than 100 points higher when he batted leadoff (.829) than in all his other at-bats (.713). And after Pagan moved to the leadoff spot, the Giants went 48-31 in the regular season, compared to 46-37 with others at the top of the lineup.
The Giants locked up Pagan over the winter with a reported four-year, $40 million contract, liking the idea of him leading off games for the foreseeable future. That's fine with Pagan, who said he always has felt more comfortable in that role.
"It gets me in the right approach for me to be a good hitter," Pagan said Saturday. "When you're hitting third, fourth, fifth, you're looking for the long ball, you're looking for gap-to-gap. Sometimes you get a little big, trying to swing harder than you're supposed to.
"When you go to the leadoff spot, you're just trying to get on base any way you can, taking pitches, hitting line drives, drawing walks. That's what gets me in the right approach."
Pagan hit just .210 in July when manager Bruce Bochy approached him about returning to the leadoff spot. After the move, Pagan caught fire, batting .342 in August and drawing more walks (15) than in the two previous months combined (12).
That shouldn't have been a surprise. For his career, Pagan has been more productive at the top of the lineup (.816 OPS) than elsewhere (.716). In four seasons with the New York Mets before joining the Giants, though, Pagan played with an established leadoff hitter in shortstop Jose Reyes.
When the Giants traded for him before the 2012 season, Pagan said he knew he would play center field, but his spot in the order was left open. Pagan tied a career-high with 97 strikeouts while drawing 48 walks, but he also stole 29 bases in 36 attempts, and hit all but one of his eight homers out of the leadoff spot.
"Because I had the right approach," Pagan said. "I was trying to be shorter to the ball, and with my power, I can hit homers. That's what I was trying to do after the second half, just trying to put the ball in play, get on base any way I could, bunting the ball a little bit. And it got my stroke back."
Last season, the Giants were third in baseball in runs scored out of the leadoff spot (120) and 11th in on-base percentage (.335). The latter was by no means extraordinary, but it came in a season in which No. 1 hitters reached base at a .324 clip, the lowest rate in 35 years, according to a recent Sports Illustrated report.
"I wouldn't say Angel's as much an on-base guy, but he's more dangerous than your prototypical leadoff guy with his power," Bochy said. "He can do some damage there. And I think he's developed more and more discipline with his experience, so he'll take his walk too."
Soon after retaining Pagan, the Giants re-signed second baseman Marco Scutaro, keeping the top of their lineup intact. Pagan said the two had been in contact after the World Series about their options, and more or less agreed if one re-signed with the Giants, the other would, too. Their rapport down the stretch last season reached the point where they developed their own hit-and-run signs, Pagan said.
"We're going to give ourselves that opportunity, because I've got the speed to steal a bag and Marco can handle the bat pretty well," Pagan said. "That creates situations for us to score early in the game.
"That was our success last year, putting (runs) early on the board and the pitching getting comfortable, protecting the lead. It makes the perfect chemistry to win ballgames. I think me and Marco make a very good 1-2 punch."