Giants & A’s

Matt Kawahara, Bay Area baseball beat writer

Game within a game designed to improve Giants’ situational hitting

04/12/2014 5:32 PM

04/13/2014 10:30 AM

It certainly wasn’t at the forefront of Michael Morse’s mind when the Giants’ left fielder stepped to the plate with two on and two outs in the fifth inning Thursday night, or when Morse was rounding second and clapping his hands after doubling off the wall in right-center to drive in both runners.

But he grinned when asked after the game how the double would rate on hitting coach Hensley Meulens’ points system.

“Two outs, couple RBIs, double,” Morse said. “Yeah, it’s pretty good points right there.”

Since spring, Giants hitters have taken part in a friendly in-house competition devised by Meulens with a real objective. Players get points for positive contributions such as moving runners over with less than two outs or driving a runner in from scoring position. They can lose points, too, in the scoring system Meulens set and tracks himself.

“It brings more focus to the situational at-bats so they can get better,” Meulens said. “I’ve done it since I started coaching because I think it’s a good way to create competition and to have a player bear down once he’s up there trying to drive in a run, move the guy over or simply have a good at-bat to get on base.”

Situational hitting was a problem for the Giants at times last season. They were 14th in the majors hitting with runners in scoring position (.256) – only one spot lower than in their 2012 World Series season. But while they led the majors that year hitting with a runner on third and less than two outs (.377), they fell to 22nd in that category last season (.301).

“We were really good at it the beginning of last year and not so good the middle months, June and July, when we basically lost the season,” Meulens said.

Meulens said the Giants have used the points game in past seasons “to try to get us out of a hole when we were struggling.” Last year, he said, the St. Louis Cardinals put a similar exercise in place for the whole season and ended up having the best average with runners in scoring position (.330) of any team since at least 1974.

Coincidence or not, Meulens said he told Giants manager Bruce Bochy over the winter he wanted to do the points system starting in spring training, and that Bochy was all for it.

“It’s something that I thought would be good for them,” Bochy said. “Last year we had our struggles with runners in scoring position, two-out hits, that type of thing. So we try to have some fun with it. See if we can loosen them up but also grind out those at-bats a little bit more.”

By several accounts, competition was a little more animated in spring, when games didn’t count and point totals were regularly posted in the clubhouse. But Meulens said the game goes on. For the season, the Giants’ 18 hitters – relief pitchers excluded – are split into three teams. The captains are Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval, and teams were determined via a draft, Meulens said.

“We’re trying to win games for the team, not necessarily score points for our little hitting group, but it is kind of a fun way to kind of compete against each other,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “(It’s) a fun way to reinforce hitting in certain situations.”

“Another focus tool is just the way I would put it,” Posey said.

Meulens described “a bunch” of ways to score points, and not all require big stats. As of Thursday, for example, backup infielder Ehire Adrianza had 21 points despite a 1-for-14 start this season. That one hit was a double in a two-strike count that scored Joaquin Arias from first base with two outs in a game the Giants trailed at the time but came back to win in Arizona 9-8.

Those things add up.

For a possible negative score, Meulens offered this scenario: In Wednesday’s loss to the Diamondbacks, Brandon Belt led off the bottom of the third after a long top of the inning in which Tim Lincecum faced six batters and allowed two runs. Had Belt swung at the first pitch, Meulens said, that would have been a minus.

“We want to see some pitches so Timmy can catch his breath,” Meulens said. “And the other guy has been sitting there cold for 15, 20 minutes, so we’ve got to make sure he’s throwing strikes.”

Belt took the first pitch for a strike on “a fastball right down the middle, which he never does,” Meulens said. And then the first baseman worked the count full and hit a single. Points: Belt.

“I don’t think anybody thinks about it (while hitting),” Belt said. “You go up thinking about your approach. But it’s something nice to see at the end of the month or whenever, kind of reflect on how you did in certain situations and what you need to improve upon.”

As of midweek, Belt was jockeying with leadoff man Angel Pagan for the individual lead, Meulens said, while the team lead belonged to “Team Brandon.” That’s actually Posey’s team, but as Meulens explained it, Belt, Crawford and Brandon Hicks are all on the team while, “ ‘Buster’ means Brandon in Georgia, ‘Adrianza’ means Brandon in Spanish and ‘Lincecum’ means Brandon in Washington state.”

Pence said players generally “know where we are and who’s in the lead. (It’s just about) unity, competition. And trash talking. It’s all things that we love as players and just any little thing to up the focus, up the competition.”

Has it had a tangible effect?

Entering Friday, the Giants were among the highest-scoring teams in baseball, with their average with runners in scoring position (.346) and with two outs and runners in scoring position (.420) leading the majors. They had scored 37 of their 55 runs with two outs – a rate so impressive it’s almost surely unsustainable.

It’s also not likely a direct result of Meulens’ game within the game. But, as Meulens said, the exercise was just part of an emphasis this spring on situational hitting that extended to hitters’ meetings, guest speakers and, of course, plenty of field work.

“We worked hard at it during spring training on the back fields, throwing situations at them, counts, runners on base, all the different situations that appear during the game,” Meulens said. “You try to work on it, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s paying off so far.”

About This Blog

Matt Kawahara has covered baseball for The Sacramento Bee for three years. Kawahara, a McClatchy High School and UC Berkeley graduate, joined The Bee in 2010. Before joining Sports, he was a general assignment news reporter. Reach Kawahara at mkawahara@sacbee.com. Twitter: @matthewkawahara.

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