The Giants’ Role Players Shine

Anybody in baseball could have had these guys. Gregor Blanco, Yusmeiro Petit, Javier Lopez. Sure, the Giants spent a little to get them, but that little has meant a lot to them in return. All three came up huge in Wednesday’s Game Four victory. And the tweaks those players made to get where they are today weren’t big tweaks. The Giants just saw the talent underneath some iffy results.

As Lopez put it after the game Wednesday, “Petit’s kinda been flying under the radar for the nation to see, but we all know what he can do here.” Petit threw three innings of one-hit ball in the Giants’ Game Four victory.

Ask Petit if he’s doing anything differently, and he shrugs. No new pitches. No big changes. Maybe he’s throwing the ball down more, and in the zone more. Except if you look at his heat maps, there’s not much of a difference from before (left) and recently (right). And his zone percentage the last two years is well below his zone numbers from earlier in his career.

petitbeforePetit14

His pitching mix has changed, but only a little bit. A couple ticks on the gun, and a few more curves than changeups, and now his curveball is the top starter’s curveball by whiff rate. But if you look at what he was doing in 2008 compared to now, you can see the groundwork was there for what he is now. He had three excellent secondary pitches:

Pitch 2008 usage 2008 Velo 2008 swSTR 2014 Usage 2014 Velo 2014 swSTR
Fastball 54% 87.6 5.4% 49% 89.4 7.1%
Curve 14% 74.6 16.1% 23% 82.2 29.2%
Change 11% 78.9 14.4% 9% 82.2 13.6%
Slider 22% 81.7 17.0% 18% 84.8 10.2%

As Lopez said, “What makes Petit great is that he has a four-pitch mix and he’s able to repeat his delivery better than anybody right now and he’s got that deception, he kind of jumps at the plate.” His fastball has that eleven-inch rise that can lead to good popup rates, and his career 4.8% pop-up rate is well above the league average of 3.7%, so even his weakness can be used as a strength.

Javier Lopez knows that the Giants’ bullpen doesn’t stack up to other bullpens in one way, but he’ll take his teammates. “We’re not going to light up radar guns, but we match up really effectively,” he said after the win.

Lopez may be the most costly of the role players on the Giants, as the team once had to trade John Bowker (the man that made Brandon Moss expendable to the Phillies) and Joe Martinez to the Pirates for him, and then signed him to a three-year $13 million contract.

But before that year with the Pirates, Lopez was having an unspectacular career. Known for his work against lefties because of his arm slot, he couldn’t keep his walk rate down enough to be effective. He was walking nearly a batter every two innings against lefties back then.

How did he better the command? By focusing. “I felt like it got to the point where I needed to execute down in the zone,” said Lopez Wednesday night. “I had to realize that being a painter is not in my repertoire, but being able to work down in the zone is something that I can and do pretty effectively.” You can see it in his pitch heat maps (early career on the left, late on the right) — Lopez really began to focus more on the outside corner:

LopezearlyLopez14

You could also see that tweak in effect last night with Matt Adams at the plate in a tight spot. Lopez fell behind 3-0, but rallied to get the slugger out. “It didn’t work out initially but I tried to stay aggressive down in the zone, I got that strike call on the 3-0 pitch, he took a hack at 3-1 and then I knew I just had to keep the ball down and I would have a decent chance to get a ground ball, and I was fortunate to get one.” Watch Lopez continue to focus on down and away, even as the at-bat threatened to get away from him.

lopezadams

Gregor Blanco was almost out of baseball, and now he’s a super hero. When Pablo Sandoval came to the park with superhero t-shirts, he ended up with Bumblebee the Transformer while other players got Superman, Batman and the like. Not a bad match for a man whose underrated skillset mostly relies on baserunning, patience, and defense.

The change that made Blanco into the super role player he is today was health. In 2010, he finally got surgery on a wrist that had been bothering him for a while, and that allowed him to find himself, “the player I wanted to be,” as he put it to me in 2013. The Giants saw him in the winter leagues, saw that he was healthy, and immediately offered him a minor league contract.

That health has allowed him to be more aggressive. Listen to him talk about coaxing a fourth-inning walk out Randy Choate in Game Four: “I was just trying to get in his head, because yesterday I but the ball it made all the things happen. So I was just trying to make him feel like I was going to bunt it again, and I think the crowd was on him, and I was just trying to make him feel uncomfortable.”

Watch Blanco’s swing rate increase over his career, and you see a player coming into his own:

BlancoSwing

Javier Lopez appreciates Gregor Blanco’s willingness to put the ball in play: “We’re hitting the ground and pound and putting the pressure on the defense.” Lopez loves the rest of his bullpen. And Yusmeiro Petit, who also loves himself. These three important cogs didn’t cost the Giants much, and they’re giving back in spades.

And it feels great. As Petit said after the game “I’ll do whatever the manager wants, I’ll do whatever they need. I feel comfortable here because the Giants gave me the chance. This is the best part of my life, right now, because I’m working relaxed, comfortable.”

All it took was a few small tweaks and an opportunity.





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

11 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Steven
8 years ago

* Game Four
Man you had me really confused there for a second.

ZenMadman
8 years ago
Reply to  Steven

I thought this article was from the future.