The Giants entered Tuesday night’s game against the Padres with 31 home runs, their most in a month since September 2011, when they also hit 31. That deadlock lasted one batter. Angel Pagan led off the bottom of the first inning by lifting a fastball from Eric Stults just inside the left-field foul pole. Two batters later, Buster Posey swatted his sixth homer of April into the seats in left-center.
A month into this season, the Giants are nearly a third of the way to their home run total from 2013, when their 107 were the second-fewest in the National League. The addition of Michael Morse (six homers) and torrid start by the since-cooled Brandon Belt (seven) have boosted that number, while Brandon Hicks (five) has provided power at second base that Marco Scutaro did not offer.
But as of Wednesday, the Giants were also hitting fly balls at the fourth-highest rate (37.2 percent of balls in play) in the majors – a stark deviation from recent seasons. Last year they had the eighth-lowest fly-ball rate in baseball (32.9 percent) and were fourth-lowest (31.4) in their World Series title year of 2012 – more in keeping with the idea that when you play half your games at AT&T Park, it pays to keep the ball out of the air.
And yet, said Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens: “The swings (this season) are not different.”
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So how to account for the change?
Hicks, new to the team this season, entered Wednesday having hit 55.6 percent of balls in play in the air, the highest rate among Giants regulars. Hunter Pence had a 39.8 percent fly-ball rate, above his career rate of 33 percent. Posey, Morse and Brandon Crawford are hitting more fly balls this year than their career averages, though by smaller margins than Pence.
Meulens said the Giants haven’t altered their hitting approach at all from the “line drive-down” philosophy that better suits their home park. “That’s produced two World Series for us, along with clutch hitting,” he said. “We have not talked about changing that.
“We were just a little behind some pitches last year, especially fastballs, and that’s why we hit so many balls on the ground,” Meulens said. “(This season) we’ve just changed the point of contact to a little more up front. And that’s going to produce some backspin, instead of catching (the ball) too deep, which is going to produce a ground ball.”
Meulens said point of contact was the subject of discussions with the Giants’ hitters late last season and this spring after it seemed they were often late on fastballs in 2013.
“Everybody’s throwing in the mid-90s now,” Meulens said. “It’s a tough pitch to hit, but once you figure it out, you can be short and hit it up front; you’re going to get carry on it. And that’s producing the home runs, really.”
While the sheer number of fly balls has increased, though, so too has the rate at which they’re clearing fences. Of the fly balls the Giants had hit entering Wednesday, 13.1 percent had gone for homers – the third-highest rate in the league and a significant increase from last year’s 7.2 percent.
In fact, the last season in which the Giants had a home run-per-fly ball ratio that reached double digits was 2004, which suggests they might have trouble sustaining their current pace. But it’s also looking unlikely they’ll repeat the power outage of last season, the logical result landing them somewhere in between.
“You should hit more than 100 home runs as a club,” Meulens said.
“Pence, Pablo (Sandoval), Buster, you have Belt and Morse, that’s five guys that could potentially hit 20, 25. We’re just looking to keep everybody healthy, number one, and if they have their average year, we should get back to hitting 160, 170 for the season.”
That is, of course, not guaranteed. But the potential benefit has already been on display. The Giants were dreadful hitting with runners in scoring position for much of the first month, including a streak of 16 games entering Wednesday in which they had no more than two hits in those situations and were 21 for 121 (.176) as a team.
Still, thanks partly to having hit more home runs than any N.L. team besides the Rockies, they went 10-6 in that span and began the final day of April 16-11 and in first place in the N.L. West.
“It’s got to get better,” Meulens said of the clutch hitting. “At some point, it’s going to hurt you if you don’t bring those guys in from third with less than one out. And we’re aware of that.”