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How the San Francisco Giants, deliberately different, built a surprise power

Brandon Belt and the San Francisco Giants are headed to the postseason. (Jeff Chiu/AP Photo)

SAN FRANCISCO — Alyssa Nakken’s new “Built for October” shirt was already soaked with beer and champagne by the time she reached into the tub of still-corked bottles nearby in the San Francisco Giants’ clubhouse at Oracle Park on Monday night.

No one looked askance when Nakken added another bottle to the waves of alcoholic precipitation unleashed that evening. In fact, a few coaches and players held up their phones to get a picture.

“We saw the bottles there. They needed to be popped,” Nakken, a Giants coach since 2020, said with a shrug the next day. “No hesitation.”

Even when they are drenched in the friendly haze of shared celebration, major league clubhouses are not traditionally places women find themselves free of hesitation. But most major league clubhouses are not like the Giants’, where everyone seems capable of improving and no one seems stuck in any old ways.

It seems almost certain, for example, that Nakken, who became the first woman to coach on the field in an MLB game last year, is also the first woman to cover a big league uniform with one of those October T-shirts, pull down her goggles and pop a bottle or two. In the Giants’ clubhouse, though — as on the field during batting practice or in the dugout during games — she blends in as one piece of a uniquely crafted puzzle.

“I feel like one of the guys, although sometimes I’m like, do I want to feel that way?” Nakken joked. “I think my point is, everybody is different in there.”

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No one — not even the Giants — expected San Francisco to be the first team to clinch a playoff spot in 2021. They were supposed to be a couple of years away from making a legitimate run to October, particularly because the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres looked far more ready. But somehow, the Giants got themselves ready.

As of Saturday morning, San Francisco owns the most wins in baseball and is on pace for more than 100 victories for the first time since 2003. The Giants lead the Dodgers by two games in the National League West. They have blown away expectations from start to finish, something few teams in recent baseball history have been able to do quite so emphatically.

But these Giants are different — intentionally, deliberately different.

President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi and Manager Gabe Kapler built the largest coaching staff in baseball and did not shy away from hires who, like Nakken or bench coach Kai Correa, had never played in the big leagues. That staff has overseen unfamiliar levels of consistency from very familiar names.

On the San Francisco Bay, catcher Buster Posey, shortstop Brandon Crawford and first baseman Brandon Belt are known as “the old guys,” the holdovers from the teams that won World Series titles in 2012 and 2014. Teammates wear T-shirts that read “let the old guys play,” though no lobbying is needed.

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Posey, 34, is hitting .299 with an .892 on-base-plus-slugging, his highest OPS since his MVP season in 2012. Crawford, 34, known more for his steadily shimmering defense than for being one of the game’s top offensive infielders, is hitting .299 with an .896 OPS. Belt, 33, who busted through for a career year in 2020, owns a .948 OPS, which would be second among first basemen behind only American League MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. if Belt had enough at-bats to qualify.

The Giants’ pitching staff, too, has transformed from an unheralded group of low-priced reclamation projects to one of baseball’s best. The San Francisco bullpen has the lowest ERA in baseball. While other teams are building bullpens on high velocity and high spin rate, the Giants are averaging the lowest fastball velocity of any MLB bullpen. They own the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the National League, in large part because they walk the fewest batters in baseball.

“This started in spring training; you remember we started talking about ‘push the pace, pound the zone, know your plan,’ ” Kapler said.

The Giants appear to be a team in sync, disciplined without being dogmatic, comfortable without being complacent. Many players credit their coaches for success when they find it, politely checking the box of spreading praise around the room. But few teams do so as often as the Giants. And few teams have a manager as averse to box-checking for its own sake than this one.

The 46-year-old Kapler has always been known for rethinking baseball norms, but his unusual approach had often earned him more criticism than success.

As manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2018 and 2019, Kapler finished two games under .500 in two seasons and was in charge when clubhouse turmoil spilled out into the press. Veteran first baseman Carlos Santana later told ESPN that he liked Kapler, but “sometimes the manager cannot control the clubhouse because everybody [is] doing their thing.”

He has faced even more serious questions about his leadership, too. A 2019 Washington Post investigation found that as head of player development for the Dodgers in 2015, Kapler was accused of failing to report a woman’s accusations of assault against one of his players to the proper authorities and instead trying to mediate a conversation between the alleged victim and players. Kapler later wrote on his website he was not aware the allegations included sexual assault and he would have handled them differently if he had known.

But his past has not stalled progress in San Francisco, where his emphasis on “the process” and the present seem to have clicked with a franchise looking for rebirth. As Kapler and his coaches see it, the game is hard enough: Why add the weight of preconceived routine to aching backs when they can lighten the load instead?

“Kap has a way of making everybody feel psychologically safe in this environment that can be tough at times,” Nakken said. “Fans, media, being in the public eye. When we’re in the dugout and in the clubhouse, there’s a sense of safety there.”

Giants hitters take batting practice on the field when they want to, and they don’t when they don’t. Players speak to the media from a Zoom room where a candle burns on the table. Veterans such as Posey know when they will play and when they won’t, and Giants coaches make sure they adhere to those schedules.

Giants pitching coaches — noteworthy in part because there are more than one — emphasize strike-throwing. Walks cause trouble, but walks are avoidable. And Kapler wants his pitchers to work quickly not only because it hurries hitters but also because it exudes confidence. Given the choice to look confident or not, why would anyone choose the latter?

In addition to hitters doing what they need when they need, Giants coaches emphasize taking as much extraneous thought as possible out of the process. One aspect of the approach is looking for a pitch in a certain tunnel. If you see it there, swing. If not, hold off. Like so much of the Giants’ approach, the plan is not necessarily novel, but the buy-in has been.

“Early on in my career, everyone is telling me, ‘Stop swinging at a slider low and away.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’d love to, but …’ ” outfielder Darin Ruf said. “Now if I train my eyes to look up and in against guys that might be trying to spin it down and away, it can help me a little bit to lay off.”

None of this is as simple as it seems, of course. But these Giants have made it look that way.

“Going into this year, I think our staff and our players as well, we resonate really well when there’s a clear and cohesive North Star,” Nakken said. Entering this season, Giants veterans placed that North Star squarely over a division title for which no one expected them to contend.

If some higher power rewound the baseball season and ran it through again with the same coaching staff and same attitude, perhaps none of this would have clicked quite so completely. Perhaps the Giants wouldn’t have a chance to hold off the mighty Dodgers. But no one in San Francisco would even consider pushing rewind at this point. If anything, the Giants decided to push fast forward.