Analytics help Baragar ascend to Majors
Caleb Baragar received a text message from Giants pitching coach Andrew Bailey asking him to report to manager Gabe Kapler’s office on Tuesday afternoon. He was greeted with unexpected but thrilling news: He was one of 30 players who had made the Giants’ Opening Day roster.
After the meeting was over, a stunned Baragar stepped outside to call his parents in Michigan.
“It was kind of funny,” Baragar said on Thursday. “I expected them both to cry, and I ended up being the one who was crying more. It's been such a long, crazy journey.”
The possibility of opening the season in the Majors seemed remote to Baragar when he reported to Oracle Park for Summer Camp two weeks ago. The 26-year-old left-hander was one of the final additions to the Giants’ player pool and was brought in as a replacement player after the club placed pitchers Luis Madero and Jarlín García on the injured list.
But Baragar quickly burst onto the scene with a string of strong outings during intrasquad action. President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said the decision to add Baragar to the roster was ultimately not a difficult one. The Giants came close to adding Baragar to their 40-man roster in November to shield him from the Rule 5 Draft, and they were relieved when no other team poached him during the annual event at the Winter Meetings.
‘We're obviously really happy to be able to hold on to him,” Zaidi said. “We kept track of his progress even when he wasn't with us in the early part of camp. He kind of kept his arm going and worked on some things. He was showing better velocity and some pretty interesting fastball characteristics, which we got to see up close once he got into camp.”
A ninth-round Draft pick of the Giants in 2016, Baragar pitched across three Minor League levels in 2019 and finished the season at Triple-A Sacramento, where he pitched five scoreless innings to help the River Cats clinch the Triple-A National Championship in September.
He posted a 3.45 ERA over 120 innings at Double-A Richmond last year and attributed his breakout campaign to his work with Giants coordinator of pitching sciences Matt Daniels, who was hired from Driveline, a private, data-driven facility based in Seattle, at the beginning of last year.
Baragar said Daniels approached him on the third day of Spring Training in 2019 and presented analytics that showed that he should be throwing his high-spin fastball up in the zone rather than down in the zone, which was an approach he had been taught his entire career. Daniels told Baragar that his vertical break, coupled with his low release point and good extension, would give the effect that his fastball was rising to hitters.
“With a high vertical break, your fastball comes in at kind of the same plane,” Baragar explained. “So my ball never really comes down. It kind of travels at the same line.”
Baragar admitted that he had begun to shift his focus to 2021 when he was left off the Giants’ initial player pool earlier this month. He is now one of 15 Giants players to make an Opening Day roster for the first time, and one of three poised to make his Major League debut, joining Rule 5 Draft pick Dany Jiménez and outfielder Joe McCarthy,
“I just kind of came, and I was ready to go, but I didn't expect this to happen,” Baragar said. “I just was coming in and trying to showcase that I put in a little bit of extra work and tried to improve on some stuff. It really paid off.”
• Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his scheduled Opening Day start with back stiffness. Right-hander Dustin May started in Kershaw’s place, forcing manager Gabe Kapler to make some changes to his starting lineup. Right-handed hitters Austin Slater, Donovan Solano and Darin Ruf were in the original starting lineup against Kershaw, but they were replaced with Pablo Sandoval, a switch-hitter, and the left-handed-hitting Alex Dickerson and McCarthy.
• Dickerson made his first Opening Day start with the Giants in left field on Thursday. He is the 14th different left fielder to draw the assignment in the last 14 years.
• Major League Baseball announced Thursday that the playoffs will be expanded to 16 teams this season, beginning with eight best-of-three Wild Card Series preceding the Division Series. Kapler said he still needs to learn more details about the new format, but it could create more opportunities for the Giants to surprise this season.
“I think any time you add teams to a playoff pool, it serves as an exciting component of a Major League season,” Kapler said. “This change in particular, given all of the uncertainty that we face so far, I think it's an element that makes this season feel a little different, a little fresher and a little bit more exciting.”