Yaz hopes to build momentum with strong finish

September 23rd, 2022

DENVER -- The Giants churned through a franchise-record 64 players in 2019, with president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi seemingly mining every avenue to try to uncover pieces who could help improve a team in transition. The constant turnover was dizzying at times, though the process seemed to uncover a few gems, most notably Mike Yastrzemski.

Yastrzemski, who came over in a nondescript trade with the Orioles, enjoyed a breakthrough season in ‘19 before continuing his rise the following year, when he placed eighth in National League MVP voting after hitting .297 with a .968 OPS and 10 home runs over 54 games in the pandemic-shortened season. But his production has dipped in each of the last two seasons, creating some uncertainty about his role with the club moving forward.

Yastrzemski is batting a career-low .210 with a .680 OPS over 136 games this year, but he’s trying to finish strong to create some positive momentum heading into the offseason. He launched his 14th home run of the season to help back a sensational effort from the Giants’ bullpen, which used six relievers to blank the Rockies, 3-0, and cap a four-game sweep at Coors Field on Thursday afternoon.

“It’s just one of those things where I want to feel a little bit of momentum going into the offseason and have something to feel good about that happened this year,” Yastrzemski said. “We’re slowly trying to build on that and keep the good feels and the play going.”

The good feels have been easier to come by at Coors Field, where Yastrzemski is a career .330 hitter with 10 home runs and 32 RBIs over 27 games at the hitter-friendly venue. He continued his track record of success with a two-hit day against Colorado right-hander José Ureña, doubling in the first inning and crushing a Statcast-projected 425-foot solo shot in the sixth to extend the Giants’ lead to 2-0.

“He’s got a big timing mechanism,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “When he’s on time, he gets a really good, aggressive swing off. I think he’s been a little bit more on time. But I really think most of the year he’s been searching for that ideal timing. He’s gone through stretches where he’s really driven the baseball, but also some where he’s flipped up underneath it to the left side of the field, or he’s been surprised by third strikes.

“Even with all of that, against right-handed pitching, his numbers are still just fine. We’re pretty confident that he’s going to run into an occasional ball even when he’s not at his best.”

Despite his struggles at the plate, the Giants have kept the left-handed-hitting Yastrzemski in a regular role, partly because he’s continued to provide value through his steady defense in the outfield. He made a terrific running catch to snag a low line drive off the bat off Elehuris Montero in the bottom of the sixth, quickly flipping to shortstop Brandon Crawford at second to double off a stunned Charlie Blackmon and end the inning.

“You could make the case that over the last couple of years, he’s been every bit as good as any other center fielder that we’ve had,” Kapler said. “He’s been our best right fielder. His makeup is tremendous. He’s always prepared and never going to be outworked. We sort of want to reward that at every turn. One of the best ways to reward a player is by showing faith in him.”

Yastrzemski also felt he underperformed in 2021, when he ranked second on the club with a career-high 25 homers but batted only .224 with a .768 OPS over 139 games. Still, he found solace in the team-wide success enjoyed by the Giants, who won a franchise-record 107 games last year. That silver lining hasn’t been there this season, as San Francisco (73-77) is on track to miss the playoffs and potentially finish below .500.

“If you’re not playing well and the team is winning, it’s like nothing ever happened,” Yastrzemski said. “But if you’re not playing well and the team is not winning, it’s one of those things where it weighs heavier on you. You feel like you’re not doing anything to help. In that sense, yeah, it’s a little bit harder this year versus previous years, but it’s a learning curve. You have to learn how to fail, especially at this level.”

Yastrzemski, who earned $3.7 million in his first arbitration-eligible season, will be due another raise this offseason, though Zaidi has suggested that the Giants have no intention of non-tendering him, even after his second consecutive down season.

“He’s still a guy who brings a ton of intangibles to the table,” Zaidi told KNBR earlier this month. “He’s a great defensive player. I think we view him as part of this team going forward. I know he’s going to be as motivated as anybody to come back strong next year.”