The San Francisco Giants are the best team in baseball. Not widely considered a preseason favorite to contend for the playoffs, they were the first team to get to 80 wins this season and, through Friday, they were on pace to win 105 games.
They have accomplished this with a diverse cast of characters, from key contributors in their mid-30s (such as catcher Buster Posey and shortstop Brandon Crawford) to lesser known players enjoying career seasons (Kevin Gausman and Tyler Rogers) to younger ones breaking through (the utility man LaMonte Wade Jr. and starting pitcher Logan Webb).
A huge part of their success has come in a fairly typical way, with the Giants leading the majors in home runs. But even that is something of a peculiar accomplishment, not just because their home stadium, Oracle Park, has traditionally been one of the hardest in which to hit balls over the wall, but also because they have only one player with 20 home runs (outfielder Mike Yastrzemski).
Rather than getting their home run production from a few strapping sluggers, like the team did with Barry Bonds or Matt Williams in the past, the Giants are collecting round-trippers from a legion of solid batters. Entering Friday, they had a major league-leading nine players with double-digit home run totals.
No one is more aware of this than third base coach Ron Wotus.
From his vantage point on the field, Wotus, the longest tenured coach in franchise history, has watched the Giants send 195 balls into the outfield seats this season. And as the players jog around third base, Wotus greets each of them with a high-five, a fist bump or, occasionally, a far more elaborate move.
“I love it,” said Wotus, 60, who is in his 24th season on the Giants’ major-league staff and was the bench coach on their 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series winning teams before moving back to his old home at third base in 2018. “I’d rather worry about what handshake I’m doing than whether I need to send a guy home with a plus arm in the outfield and the game on the line. It’s made my job easier.”
Because the Giants have so many players clobbering homers, Wotus has had quite a few routines to memorize. Most of the time, he offers one organically based on a player’s personality. But sometimes, it requires a little direction from the player.
After first baseman and outfielder Darin Ruf joined the Giants last season, Wotus said they struggled with their exchange. They tried a high-five, then a low-five, until they finally settled on slapping hands.
“It took us a while to coordinate that one,” Wotus said.
Ruf, 35, is an example of the type of unheralded player that has blossomed for this year’s Giants. The former Philadelphia Phillies prospect finally found himself during a three-season run in South Korea and then signed a minor-league deal with the Giants before the 2020 campaign.
Under Farhan Zaidi, the Giants’ president of baseball operations, the team likes to take advantage of players’ strengths and matchups against an opponent, so Ruf has found playing time at first base, left field and right. He was hitting .274 with 14 home runs and a team-leading .941 on-base plus slugging percentage in 95 games through Friday.
Players like Ruf and Wade Jr. — who sputtered in brief stints with the Minnesota Twins before being traded to San Francisco and has now crushed 17 home runs because of swing changes — explain part of the Giants’ surge in home runs. Another likely factor is a series of changes made to the dimensions of Oracle Park ahead of the 2020 season. (The center field wall, for example, was moved in to 391 feet from 399 to make room for the bullpens that were once located in foul territory.)
It has also helped to have a return to form from the team’s star players. Posey, 34, the longest tenured Giant, is back after having opted out of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. And Crawford, 34, a slick fielder, has transformed a swing that netted too many groundouts in 2019 and 2020 into one that is producing the highest fly ball and home run rates of his career.
The major league record for most home runs a season — set by the Minnesota Twins in 2019 with 307 — is unlikely to be threatened by these Giants, or any other team this season. The ball used in previous years, when home run records were seemingly broken each season, is no longer in use after many complaints over its inconsistencies. But the Giants are on pace to break their own franchise record of 235 homers, set by Bonds and his teammates in 2001, before M.L.B. tested for steroids.
The power throughout the lineup is a change for the Giants, whose World Series titles were powered more by stout defense and pitching than offense. This season, Wotus said, the team has managed to find ways to get the most out of its players.
“Most of the players that Farhan brought in already had plate discipline,” he said. “That’s what they look for — people that have a good eye at the plate. And it was a matter of adjusting their swings to maybe help them get more out.”
Wotus has known Posey, Crawford and first baseman Brandon Belt so long — the threesome of players won the 2012 and 2014 World Series together — that there is no question of what he’ll do when they saunter past him at third base. For Crawford (19 home runs), Wotus does a belt high hand slap and says, “Way to go!” — a fairly routine celebration for a player whom Wotus says is “always under control.” For Posey (15 homers), Wotus does a hand tap but with less pizazz, because Posey is the type of player who “when he does something, it’s like he’s done it before.”
And for the 6-foot-3 230-pound Belt (19 home runs), Wotus said, “He’s a big boy so I put my fist out and he hits the hammer down.”
Name the rest of the Giants’ home run hitters and Wotus rattles off the salutes instantly. Yastrzemski likes knuckles above the head. Third baseman Evan Longoria, whom Wotus calls “an old pro,” likes the traditional handshake “that your dad taught you.” Left fielder Alex Dickerson likes a plain high-five.
“I tried to low-five with him one-time and he almost strained his back, so we had to go on top,” Wotus said with a laugh.
Wotus said Wade Jr. slaps his hand down low (“way down low”) as hard as possible and yells, “Let’s go, Wo!” every time. Wade Jr. said it took only four or five home runs for Wotus to figure out what he liked.
“He’s so good, and he’s got a good brain that he memorizes them all,” said Wade Jr., 27, adding later, “If we’re making him work, it’s because we’re scoring runs and I’m all for it.”
Second baseman Donovan Solano, a religious man, points to the sky as he jogs by and so does Wotus. Infielder Mauricio Dubon likes to jump for a high-five. Kris Bryant, the slugger acquired from the Chicago Cubs at the July 30 trade deadline, has 24 blasts on the season but only six with the Giants and he likes a quick, outstretched hand slap.
The most unusual celebration, though, comes from infielder Wilmer Flores, who has 16 home runs. He likes to make a fist with his right hand and stick it out as if he is punching someone in the gut. Wotus does it, too. “Of course we miss each other,” he said.
The reason? Flores, 30, said they came up with it last season, his first with the Giants, but he never explained it to Wotus. Flores, a right-handed hitter, said it represented the full extension of the bottom hand on his swing, the type of motion that sends balls into the stands.
“We’re hitting a lot of home runs so you’ve got to have something fun to do at third base,” Flores said laughing.
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