Early work for Giants works wonders
Extra practice helps youngsters and veterans alike
SAN FRANCISCO -- Ron Wotus spoke with complete certainty, as if he were reciting the ground rules he so frequently discusses with umpires before a game."Early work is a staple," said Wotus, the Giants' bench coach. "It's not an occasional occurrence. It's a daily activity." Typically, nobody witnesses early work except for the participants. It consists of the drills and exercises players engage in before the start of batting practice, usually when a team is playing a home night game. The goal is to turn fundamentals into habits -- explaining the sincerity in Wotus' voice, since sincere effort and dedication are required. As 16 rookies made their Major League debuts last season for the Giants, coaches found their afternoon workshops well-attended.
"When you have younger players, you need to spend more time teaching," manager Bruce Bochy said.
The mini-seminars have remained essential this year. Reserves such as utilityman Eugenio Velez and outfielders Nate Schierholtz and Andres Torres need them to compensate for their lack of game activity. Regulars such as left fielder Fred Lewis and first baseman Travis Ishikawa rely on them to polish their defense.
"A first baseman can go games without seeing ground balls," Ishikawa said. "Like anything, practice makes perfect."Even a 14-year veteran like shortstop Edgar Renteria favors early work as a means of focusing on his craft. "He likes to take grounders before batting practice, with no other balls flying around," said Wotus, who supervises the Giants' infielders. But early work doesn't simply mean extra work. It's not a matter of players seeing additional batting-practice pitches or judging more popups. Often, the day's topic is narrowly defined. Infielders refine their double-play technique or work on backhanded stops. Outfielders practice catching fly balls in the sun or charging base hits. So on Tuesday afternoon, before the Giants begin a two-game series against the San Diego Padres, a handful of them might refine a skill they barely know they possess -- or should possess. "I try to work on something specific," said first base coach Roberto Kelly, who's in charge of the outfielders. Said Wotus, "I try to do something other than what they'd get in regular batting practice." Wotus acknowledged that a seldom-used player might take extra grounders or swings during early work to benefit from the sheer repetition. But that's the exception rather than the rule in the hour before batting practice. "It's something I always look forward to because I want to stay sharp," said Schierholtz, who has appeared in only four games and hasn't started one yet. And virtually every position player indulges in some form of supplemental batting practice with hitting coach Carney Lansford besides the basic on-field session. "You're trying to have the same routine to get that same feeling in your swing each day," Ishikawa said. Measures are taken to make each exercise as realistic as possible. For example, Kelly peppers outfielders with balls he hits that are flipped to him underhanded -- "soft toss," in baseball parlance. This more closely simulates the drives an outfielder will handle in a game than the lazy fungoes a coach ordinarily would hit. Wotus stressed that early work isn't the penance a player serves for a two-error evening or a spate of strikeouts at the plate. If a player struggles repeatedly in a particular area, coaches will address it. But mostly, the afternoons are reserved for reinforcement, not punishment. "Early work, for me, is something that we do to keep trying to make the player better," Wotus said. "I don't like to say, 'OK, you've made a bunch of mistakes; now we have to go out and do early work.' I never like to coach that way. Quite the contrary. I'd rather do the work when they're playing well. I think they're more receptive. "This game is all about confidence. Everybody makes mistakes; everybody makes errors. That's why a routine that keeps them prepared daily, I feel, is the best way to help them stay confident and focused."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.