When the Giants return to Oracle Park to face the Rockies in their home opener on Friday afternoon, it will mark the club’s first time playing in front of their fans in San Francisco in 19 months.
After playing in empty ballparks during the pandemic-shortened season last year, the Giants have received permission to fill their stadium to up to 22% capacity, clearing the way for nearly 9,000 fans to attend each of their home games this year.
The return of fans at Oracle Park will be particularly special for players like left-hander Caleb Baragar, who debuted for the Giants last year but has yet to pitch in front of his family in a Major League game. That is expected to change soon, as Baragar said his parents, Joni and Mark, are planning to fly in from Michigan to hopefully watch him in action against the Rockies this weekend.
“Everybody’s excited,” Baragar said Tuesday. “There’s definitely a different feel around the game right now with fans. Just from last year to this year, it’s kind of cool to see that everybody’s got a little bit more energy. Guys have a little more adrenaline when they’re playing. You can just tell people feed off that crowd noise, so I’m really excited to see what it’s like when we get home and play in front of [fans] that won’t boo us when we [attempt pickoffs] and [fans] that will actually be cheering for us instead of the other team.”
Baragar enjoyed an unexpected rise to the Majors last year, as he was a late addition to the Giants’ Summer Camp roster and ended up making the Opening Day bullpen after emerging as a standout during intrasquad action at Oracle Park. He logged a 4.03 ERA over 24 appearances in 2020, though his overall numbers were skewed by a rough three-game stretch in August during which he allowed eight earned runs over two innings against the Rockies, Dodgers and Astros.
Still, Baragar was spotless down the stretch for the Giants, working 14 1/3 scoreless innings over his final 16 games of the 2020 campaign. He has yet to give up a run in his first two appearances of 2021, extending his scoreless streak to 15 innings.
The Giants had initially planned to stretch out Baragar during Spring Training and give him the opportunity to compete for a spot in the rotation, but the 26-year-old was slowed by hamstring tightness and didn’t have enough time to build back up before the start of the regular season. He ended up making the Opening Day roster for the second consecutive year and is now one of five lefties in the Giants’ eight-man bullpen.
“I shared with the [coaching] staff that I’m totally fine with going back to the bullpen,” Baragar said. “That’s something I enjoyed last year, and I’m happy to do it again. That’s kind of where we got to with that. There was really no more build up for starting after that hamstring issue.”
Baragar is known for his unique fastball, which he threw 74.5 percent of the time last year. The pitch averaged 93.8 mph in 2020, but it features a high vertical break and ranked in the 92nd percentile in fastball spin rate, which gives the effect that his fastball is rising to hitters.
Baragar shares a similar pitching profile with closer Jake McGee, who joined San Francisco on a two-year deal over the offseason and threw almost exclusively fastballs last year. McGee leaned on his heater a whopping 96.4 percent of the time in 2020, throwing only 10 sliders all season.
Baragar said he’s enjoyed having a fellow fastball-heavy left-hander in the bullpen and believes McGee will be a valuable resource for him as he navigates his sophomore season in the Majors.
“I try to talk to him two or three times a day, and I try to hang out with him in the ‘pen, just so I can kind of pick his brain,” Baragar said. “The guy has been doing it for 10 years now, and he kind of pitches similarly to me and has similar stuff. It’s been great, honestly. It’s kind of been like having a mentor, which was something I didn’t really have as much last year.
"It’s been really cool for me to be able to learn from his career and kind of take some tidbits from what he’s doing and just kind of pick his brain and basically elevate my game based on what he’s done because I know it’s very similar to what I’m trying to do.”