As Angel Pagan tells it, the latest step in his maturation as a hitter occurred last summer in Arizona while the Giants’ center fielder was rehabbing from hamstring surgery.
“I was kind of swinging the bat at the ballpark, having the machine throw nasty pitches, and I was just trying to tell myself, ‘Hey, you’ve got quick enough hands, just let them go,’ ” Pagan said. “ ‘Just let your hands do the job.’ ”
It’s a simple idea, and one Pagan, 32, said people had presented to him over the years but that he’d not really internalized. At the same time, he said, he “always thought that there was something missing in my approach” as a hitter. As he worked his way back from the injury that kept him out for nearly 90 games last season – a costly absence, as it turned out – the two notions dovetailed.
“I didn’t know how to be patient,” he said. “I was always falling for the pitcher’s game. If he threw me a backdoor slider and I wasn’t looking for that, I was swinging to get myself out. Now, I let the pitcher come to me and throw my pitch, in the zone I’m looking for.”
Trusting his hands helped unlock that change, Pagan said, because “you understand that nothing is going to beat you.” When he returned to the Giants at the end of August, he felt “more relaxed at the plate, letting the ball get to me as opposed to just attacking the ball, and it worked. I think I did pretty good after I came back.”
Pagan batted .323 over his final 25 games and has started this season on a tear – something he attributes to that newfound patience. Through the Giants’ first nine games this year, Pagan is batting .462 (18 for 39) with seven multi-hit games, eight RBIs and a 6-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.
Not coincidentally, the Giants’ offense as a whole is producing at a high rate early, with its 47 runs entering Wednesday ranking third in the majors. Giants players and staff have talked at length about how losing their leadoff hitter affected the lineup in 2013, and in the first 33 games following Pagan’s return the Giants were 20-13.
In Tuesday’s home-opener win over Arizona, Pagan started rallies in the first and third innings with a walk and double, respectively. He drew the walk after falling behind 1-2 in the count. That’s another outcome Pagan – who’s not walked more than 48 times in a season – said he’s more willing to take at this point in his career.
Despite the low walk totals, Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said he believes Pagan has long been “patient (in order) to get the pitch he wants to hit. But this year, he’s even in a better place, balance-wise, to where he’s not rushing to get a swing off.
“He’s a guy that has pre-pitch movement – he loads, he’s got that little movement – but it’s all synchronized right now,” Meulens said. “He’s not getting disconnected. And that (allows you to) see the ball good, in the area you want to see it, and then swing and still have a good swing.”
With Pagan, Meulens added, “Confidence is something you have to put into the equation. Once he has his mechanics figured out and he’s seeing the ball good and getting hits, his confidence goes through the roof. And that’s where he’s at.”
During his first eight seasons, Pagan faced only one pitcher – Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels – more than the 39 times he batted against Tim Hudson, who now occupies a locker nearby in the Giants’ clubhouse. Hudson pointed out a notable difference between the Pagan he saw often with the New York Mets and the current version.
“Most young players, they may not have a great recognition of the strike zone, as veteran players do,” Hudson said. “You can just tell he’s taken that step, as veteran players do, of knowing the strike zone and having a really good plan up there, understanding what the pitcher’s going to do with him.”
Pagan has historically not been a strong starter – his .263 career average in March and April is his second lowest of any month. But it sounds as if he still sees time to grow out of that.
“You never stop learning,” Pagan said. “You see some of the best hitters, they finally learn how to hit in maybe the midpoint of their careers. And I want to say I’m in the midpoint of my career right now. So this is the right time for me to be maturing.”