Wood work: Pitchers target batting skills in camp
Giants' staff striving to handle lumber this season after significant slump in 2013
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Though Giants pitchers know they must focus on silencing bats, swinging them also has become a leading priority.
San Francisco's pitchers performed abysmally at the plate in 2013, batting a National League-worst .096. That was 39 points below the NL average.
This shortcoming alone didn't topple the Giants from their perch as reigning World Series champions into a third-place tie in the NL West last year. But the pitchers' futility at the plate contrasted sharply with their exploits in the 2012 postseason, when they drove in runs in four consecutive games -- from Game 5 of the NL Championship Series against St. Louis through Game 1 of the World Series against Detroit.
Keenly aware of the difference in performance, as well as the decline's significance, Giants starters have spent a significant portion of Spring Training striving to hit adequately. They believe that their rededication to the art of hitting will inevitably hasten the team's success.
Entering Friday night's Cactus League game against the Oakland A's, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Tim Hudson had collected at least one hit apiece. Though they're guaranteed to face more formidable pitching during the regular season, the mild success reflects their intent.
"We know that we didn't do a very good job with [hitting] last year, for whatever reason," right-hander Ryan Vogelsong said. "I don't think it was for lack of working. We just didn't do a very good job. Yes, it's definitely a concerted effort from all of us to be better up there at the plate."
That effort has included playing pepper, which prompts hitters to follow a thrown ball until it strikes the bat. It also has featured intensified batting-practice sessions involving situational hitting, in which pitchers hone their skills at advancing runners, squeeze bunting and executing the "slash" play, in which a hitter fakes a bunt and swings instead.
Bumgarner, who hit a career-low .107 last year despite possessing considerable strength and an excellent swing, sounded bent on improving the Giants' productivity from the ninth spot in the batting order.
"We were terrible last year," Bumgarner said. "I know that's not what we were asked to do, but we want to contribute."
The Giants appear to have the potential to achieve that goal. Cain's six career home runs tie him for sixth-most among active pitchers since August 2005 when he reached the Majors. Bumgarner homered twice in 2012. Vogelsong batted a respectable .226 in 2011 before slumping to .084 the past two seasons. Hudson broke Hall of Famer-elect Frank Thomas' single-season RBI record at Auburn University. Tim Lincecum has ranked among the NL's top 10 in sacrifice bunts three times.
"I've never been on a staff where so many guys can really handle the bat well," said Hudson, a 15-year Major League veteran who joined the Giants as a free agent this offseason. "It seems like the majority of these guys can."
Vogelsong often has witnessed the impact of an effective plate appearance from a pitcher. "It seems like a lot of rallies start with us or go through us," he said. "We're in the middle of a lot of everything, it seems like, the last two years, whether it's getting a bunt down or a slash."
Goading each other into excelling, a favorite approach among athletes in any sport, might become more common among the Giants' starting staff.
"We definitely rib each other pretty bad, so I think that's plenty," Vogelsong said. "We don't give each other a hard time so much about pitching, but we definitely give each other a hard time from the batting aspect."
Simply knowing that posing a threat with the bat is not just a luxury but also an imperative could help Giants pitchers support themselves.
"We take a lot of pride in being able to get bunts down and move guys over and stuff like that," Vogelsong said. "Having that mentality is a good start."