Why the Giants' homegrown infield shines line a diamond
The major headlines of the Giants’ offseason and early spring – the signings of Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span; Hunter Pence’s return; Matt Cain’s health – also said something about the position group they did not involve.
Outside of locking up shortstop Brandon Crawford through 2021, the Giants stood pat with their infield made up entirely of players drafted and developed by the organization. On Monday in Milwaukee, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Crawford and Matt Duffy should become the first all-homegrown infield to start an Opening Day for the Giants since 1993.
“It’s like a close-knit family out there,” Belt said.
It’s also far from a novelty act. The Giants last season were the only team in the majors to have infielders at all four positions account for 4.2 wins above replacement or better, according to FanGraphs. Three of the four were finalists for the Gold Glove at their respective positions; Panik might have made it four had he not been limited to 100 games by injury.
It’s further a group that, by its own consensus, can still improve. All four infielders are between 25 and 29 years old – at or nearing the age when players often hit their prime. Crawford, the eldest, is coming off a season in which he earned Silver Slugger and Gold Glove honors for the first time. Belt, 27, set career highs last season in home runs (18) and RBIs (68) despite playing in just 137 games.
Panik, 25, in his first full season, was en route to a breakout campaign in the majors, batting .312 with eight homers, when he was derailed in August by a back injury. And Duffy, also 25, finished second in National League Rookie of the Year voting while hitting .295 with 12 homers and playing a position, third base, he only took up seriously last spring.
That all four – along with the projected Opening Day battery of ace Madison Bumgarner and catcher Buster Posey – are products of the same system is a feather in the cap of the Giants’ scouting and player development staffs. But what is the effect of that shared upbringing on the players themselves? How, if at all, does it manifest itself on the field?
“I just think if you look at all four of us, kind of our attitude on the field, we all have a quiet confidence,” Panik said. “If you watch Craw, Duff, Belt, you don’t see them ever really get flustered out there. We work hard together, and when you’re on the field, you make an error, it’s, ‘We got you; we’ll pick you up.’
“It’s that type of mentality that nothing will faze you, just that even-keel type attitude. I just think coming up through the system you kind of mature that way.”
Duffy, an 18th-round draft pick out of Long Beach State in 2012, said he was decidedly not that way coming out of college, where he’d “get really mad” every time he made an error. After being drafted by the Giants, Duffy reported to Low-A Salem-Keizer, where he said the message from his infield coach Hector Borg – later echoed by the Giants’ then-roving infield instructor Jose Alguacil – was: “I don’t care about mistakes.”
“He said, ‘Throw the ball hard every time, always be aggressive, and if you do make a mistake, if anything, be more aggressive,’ ” Duffy said. “That was nice for me to hear, because like I said, I always took it very hard before I came here.
“There’s people who are very subdued in average, everyday life, and when they get on the field they’re really fiery and really take mistakes to heart. But I think we all play very free and not worrying about the outcome necessarily. It’s just play aggressive, play hard.”
Though Crawford and Belt are the only two of the current infield to have been teammates in the minors – Crawford and Panik also played together in the Arizona Fall League in 2011 – several said that learning the same fundamentals and running the same drills and plays in the minors helped them mesh as a defensive unit last season.
“We were coached by the same people coming up, so I kind of know all the infielders’ tendencies,” Belt said. “I think a big part is just knowing how they throw in certain situations, what their next move is going to be as far as getting the ball to first base.”
If that sounds trivial, consider that Will Clark, the first baseman on the Giants’ last homegrown Opening Day infield, can still recite the types of throws he could expect to receive from each of his fellow infielders.
Second baseman Robby Thompson: “He’d catch the ball and straight over the top, throw an absolutely perfectly straight four-seam fastball every time.”
Shortstop Royce Clayton: “He’d make diving plays and throw off the run, so his arm angle varied. Sometimes he’s throwing the ball straight, sometimes he’s throwing me sinkers, sometimes he’s throwing me sliders.”
Third baseman Matt Williams: “I could put my glove by my chest, and he’d hit it every time.”
That 1993 infield was already relatively established – only Clayton had less than six years in the majors. But Clark said the Giants still urged players to talk constantly in the field about positioning and responsibilities on certain plays.
“It’s the same thing now,” Clark said. “Crawford and Panik, every day they’re talking about something going on at shortstop or second base. When Crawford goes out there to take ground balls he doesn’t take them without Panik being there. You get familiarity with people; you get to know their habits.”
Panik said the infielders will discuss before games how they intend to play certain hitters. But there’s also an element of in-game reaction that’s helped by being able to play off of his other infielders.
“Let’s say Craw sees a guy’s out in front of a breaking ball, I see him kind of shift over, so I’ll take a step over,” Panik said. “Belt, same thing – he sees a big lefty, he’ll move a certain way, I’ll move a certain way. It’s just trust in what we see and what we do.”
Overall, the infield might be expected to take its cue from Crawford, who owns the most accolades and – having signed a six-year, $75 million contract extension in November – the biggest contract. The most service time, though, actually belongs to Belt. Panik was the only first-round draft pick of the bunch – No. 29 overall in 2011. All four infielders own at least one World Series ring (Crawford and Belt have two, from 2012 and 2014).
Duffy started last season as a reserve before replacing free-agent signee Casey McGehee as the everyday third baseman in May. He played in the Giants’ final 118 games, making such an impression on teammates and coaches that they voted him the first rookie winner of the team’s Willie Mac Award, given to the most inspirational player.
“I think we all treat each other the same,” Crawford said. “It doesn’t matter that it was Duffy’s first full season last year. He’s part of our infield, he’s part of our family, we’re not going to treat him any differently. I think that helps everybody feel comfortable right away and fit in and do their job.”
That attitude, Crawford said, also applies off the field. Crawford, Panik and their wives spent an evening together in New York in December – Crawford was there to accept his Gold Glove Award – taking in dinner and a show. Fantasy football kept the infielders in touch over the winter. Crawford joked that he got an update on Duffy’s offseason from a photo of the third baseman lifting weights that made the rounds on social media.
“I’d say light is pretty accurate,” Belt said of the infield dynamic. “But I think we want to put in the work. We know how good we can be, and we want to make sure we put in the work so we can reach that potential.”
Already this spring a prominent ESPN columnist tabbed the Giants’ infield as the second best in the majors, behind the Chicago Cubs’ quartet of Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant – who beat out Duffy last year for Rookie of the Year honors. Does the Giants’ foursome ever measure itself against other infields?
“No,” Crawford said. “We’re worried about our play on the field.”
“I wouldn’t say we get in too deep, look around and see what everybody’s WAR is,” Belt said. “But I think for us, we kind of feel like we are the best infielders in the league, and it’s nice to see that hard work pay off and people recognize that.
“At the same time, I think we all feel like we have a lot of work to do, and we can get even better, and this can be one of the best infields in the league for a long time. And that’s what we’re working toward.”
Giants at a glance
- 2015: 84-78, second place in National League West
- Manager: Bruce Bochy (10th season)
- They’re here: SP Johnny Cueto, SP Jeff Samardzija, CF Denard Span
- They’re outta here: SP Tim Hudson, SP Tim Lincecum, SP Ryan Vogelsong, RP Jeremy Affeldt, OF Nori Aoki, OF Justin Maxwell
- Projected lineup: CF Denard Span (.301 batting average/.365 on-base percentage/.431 slugging average in 61 games w/WASH), 2B Joe Panik (.312/.378/.455), 3B Matt Duffy (.295/.334/.428, 12 HR, 77 RBIs), C Buster Posey (.318/.379/.470, 19 HR, 95 RBIs), RF Hunter Pence (.275/.327/.478, 9 HR, 40 RBIs in 52 games), 1B Brandon Belt (.280/.356/.478, 18 HR, 68 RBIs), SS Brandon Crawford (.256/.321/.462, 21 HR, 84 RBIs), pitcher’s spot, LF Angel Pagan (.262/.303/.332, 3 HR, 37 RBIs)
- Projected rotation: LH Madison Bumgarner (18-9, 2.93 ERA, 234 strikeouts), RH Johnny Cueto (11-13, 3.44 w/CIN and KC), RH Jeff Samardzija (11-13, 4.96 w/CHW), RH Jake Peavy (8-6, 3.58), RH Matt Cain (2-4, 5.79 in 13 games)
- Key relievers: CL Santiago Casilla (4-2, 2.79, 38 saves), RH Sergio Romo (0-5, 2.98, 11.1 K/9 in 70 games), LH Javier Lopez (1-0, 1.60 in 77 games), RH George Kontos (4-4, 2.33 in 73 games), RH Hunter Strickland (3-3, 2.45 in 55 games)
- Outlook: The Giants dipped into the coffers this offseason to bolster their starting rotation and outfield and build a team that, if key players stay healthy, should contend for the N.L. West title. The lineup is deep and should benefit from the return of Pence and Panik. A bullpen that had the league’s third-lowest ERA last season returns mostly intact. Fittingly, the Giants’ success could hinge largely on their rotation’s top three – Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija – being the formidable group their histories – and contracts –suggest they should be. If so, the Giants appear constructed for another even-year postseason run.