Giants hope A.J. Pollock will reduce their problematic left-on-left exposure

SAN FRANCISCO — Mitch Haniger wasn’t on a first-name basis with most of the big league ballplayers when he stepped on the bus. He didn’t plan on talking to anyone. He was just a Double-A player back in the spring of 2015, summoned by the Arizona Diamondbacks from minor league camp to fill out a spring training exhibition roster.

But in an adjacent row of seats, he eavesdropped on a conversation between Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock and shortstop Nick Ahmed. They were talking about hitting mechanics and using terminology that Haniger had never heard before.

“So I just kind of interrupted them,” Haniger said. “Like, `Hey, what are you guys talking about?’ It just sounded really interesting. They had no idea who I was. But I just had to ask. I’d always considered myself a student of the game and I saw it as an opportunity to learn. Thankfully, they were willing to share their info.

“And that changed my whole career.”

Pollock told Haniger about Bobby Tewksbary, a private hitting guru and published author whose swing concepts were beginning to catch on with major league players. Haniger downloaded Tewksbary’s e-book, “Elite Swing Mechanics,” and devoured it. The book totally changed his hitting philosophy. He resolved to alter his bat path, work to create an ideal launch angle, and tap into more of his power potential.

“I took all the stuff I learned in the book and tried to implement it,” Haniger said. “When I’d work with hitting coaches, I’d tell them, `This is what I’m trying to do. Help me figure out how.’ I went on to have a really good season, and then another good season, and I was in the big leagues.”

Pollock was one of the earliest adopters of the launch angle revolution that became widespread throughout the game. He introduced Haniger to those concepts while he still had time in his minor-league career to figure things out. But it’s funny how people intersect within the game. Instead of Haniger continuing to follow Pollock, it’s happened the other way around.

Haniger was traded to Seattle and he found his foothold in five seasons with the Mariners before departing as a free agent to sign a three-year, $43.5 million contract with the Giants this past winter. The Mariners, seeking to replace some of Haniger’s right-handed production, signed Pollock to a one-year, $7 million contract. It didn’t work out so well. Pollock, 35, had a .547 OPS for the Mariners when he landed on the 10-day injured list on July 21 because of a mild left hamstring strain.

Pollock became a spare part in Seattle and the Giants, who are in need of another right-handed hitter while Haniger rehabs a fractured forearm, were willing to take a flier. The Giants acquired Pollock and minor league infielder Mark Mathias for a player to be named later or cash considerations. Pollock will join the Giants on Tuesday and the expectation is that he’ll be on the active roster as long as he passes some pregame tests.

It’s not the kind of high-profile addition that will transform a contending team at the trade deadline, which arrives at 3 p.m. PT  Tuesday. But within the Giants clubhouse, players said they are eager to welcome someone who’s been a lefty killer and professional hitter for most of his career.

“We’re all definitely excited to have him,” Haniger said. “I know I’m excited to have him back in the clubhouse and continue to learn from him. He’s been around the game for a long time. My friends in Seattle just raved about him and they were pretty bummed to see him get traded. But we got a good one.”

The statistical case is less compelling. But it wasn’t too long ago that Pollock was a productive performer against left-handed pitching. He had enough confidence in his market this past winter to turn down a $13 million option with the Chicago White Sox and choose a $5 million buyout. The Giants were among the teams that expressed interest in him at the time, but club president Farhan Zaidi said the timing didn’t work out. Despite Pollock’s struggles in Seattle, Zaidi’s interest persisted.

“We look at some of the underlying measures of plate discipline and how he’s moving around the field,” Zaidi told reporters on Monday. “His sprint speeds are good. We just view him as a really good change-of-scenery candidate.”

Pollock was a one-time platoon partner with Joc Pederson in Los Angeles while Zaidi was the Dodgers’ GM. Now the Giants will use Pollock along with Austin Slater, who has dealt with several nagging injuries this season, as another option to shield some of their left-on-left exposure among their outfielders. Even a marginal improvement at the plate for Pollock will be better than the .561 OPS that the Giants are getting in left-on-left matchups, which is the fourth worst in the major leagues. A large chunk of those matchups have been taken by Michael Conforto (.589 OPS against lefties) and Mike Yastrzemski (also .589). As surgical as the Giants tend to be when it comes to mining platoon advantages, they have amassed the seventh most left-on-left matchups of any team in the major leagues.

And Yastrzemski’s latest hamstring injury made the need for another outfielder a bit more acute. The Giants placed him on the 10-day IL on Monday and expect him to miss two to three weeks.

In another month, they expect to have Haniger’s right-handed bat in the lineup again, too. He is beginning to take dry swings and is encouraged that his grip strength isn’t too far below his baseline readouts.

“I know I’m going to come back and play with this team,” Haniger said. “This year hasn’t started how I’d like and being on the shelf isn’t fun. But I’m excited to get back out there and I’ll be ready.”

The Giants have the personnel to go all-right-handed in the outfield with Pollock, Slater and rookie Luis Matos. They’ll get another right-handed hitter back in a week or so when second baseman Thairo Estrada, who begins a rehab assignment with Triple-A Sacramento on Tuesday, is ready to return from his fractured hand. Even when they get most of their personnel back, Zaidi said he envisions a place for Pollock on the roster.

Of course, the Giants could have gone in other directions. The Mets traded Mark Canha to Milwaukee on Monday. The A’s have Ramon Laureano, who is a solid defender with another year of club control before free agency. Heck, the Giants could have taken one look at Wil Myers’ career numbers as a visitor in San Francisco and felt compelled to give him a call and peel him off his couch. The Mets’ Tommy Pham would have provided right-handed production and an embarrassment of page views, too. But the Giants flatly refused to consider a player whose slap of Pederson in Cincinnati last season amounted to domestic assault in their eyes.

So frequent trade partners Zaidi and Seattle GM Jerry DiPoto, who might trade recipes for beef bourguignon when they’re not running baseball teams, got together on a deal. The Mariners needed Pollock’s roster spot on Monday after trading closer Paul Sewald to the Diamondbacks for two big leaguers and a prospect. The Mariners are even kicking in some cash to cover some or all of the $2.3 million still owed to Pollock this season.

With minimal investment on the Giants’ part, if Pollock doesn’t work out, it will be easy for them to move on and use his roster spot on someone else.

Giants pitcher Alex Wood is removed in the sixth inning against the Diamondbacks. (Sergio Estrada / USA Today)

The Giants’ more immediate concern after Monday’s 4-3, 11-inning loss to the Diamondbacks was their pitching staff, which had to cover its second consecutive extra-inning game after employing an opener. Jakob Junis will be down after throwing the first three innings and so will Alex Wood, who might have been their “featured” starter but was entered in the short-film category. He was pulled after 2 2/3 innings. Closer Camilo Doval and right-hander Tyler Rogers each appeared for a third consecutive day and almost certainly will be off-limits. The Giants will be desperate for a deep outing on Tuesday from Alex Cobb, who had been pushed back because of a stomach ailment that is making its way through the clubhouse.

Prior to the game, Zaidi acknowledged that the club’s sudden wave of pitching injuries will reduce the likelihood that they deal any arms off their major league roster. Anthony DeSclafani is going for a second opinion about his flexor tendon strain that might push him to the 60-day IL, which would all but end his season. Promising right-hander Keaton Winn and Double-A left-hander Carson Whisenhunt also have been shut down because of elbow issues of varying severity. Top pitching prospect Kyle Harrison might be a candidate to make his major league debut later this season, but he just began a rehab assignment in Arizona on Monday after missing several weeks because of a moderately strained hamstring.

But the pitching was intact on Monday for the Giants to attempt a third consecutive walk-off victory, which they hadn’t done since Barry Bonds ended a pair of games with home runs over a three-day span against the Atlanta Braves in 2003. Wilmer Flores, who otherwise stayed red hot with a home run and a deep out to the track in center field, struck out with a chance to win the game in the 10th inning. LaMonte Wade Jr. also hit a warning track out to the deepest part of center field in the 10th. And with the tying run at third base, the Giants couldn’t get the hit they needed in the 11th from rookies Blake Sabol or Patrick Bailey to forge one more tie.

Until their offense rediscovers the ability to break games open early, they’ll have to figure out a way to win these close and late games. Perhaps one more seasoned bat off the bench will help.

(Top photo of A.J. Pollock with Seattle: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

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