SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been nearly a week since the San Francisco Giants held their first full-squad summer workout at Oracle Park, but the club has yet to schedule its first in-person team meeting.
For decades, major league clubhouses have played host to meetings featuring casual conversations, motivational speeches and even verbal altercations that shape a team’s season. During the coronavirus pandemic, the new normal looks nothing like the past.
“I think to a certain extent we’ll continue to be creative and you won’t see a full-fledged 30 people sitting in the clubhouse with a staff,” Giants bench coach Kai Correa said. “With keeping the health and safety of players at the forefront, we’ll continue to pursue things with the scoreboard, talks outside in the bleachers and group texts and video conferences and iPad video sharing as ways to circumvent that and help us be not only efficient but safe.”
Correa, the Giants’ first-year bench coach, is one of the masterminds behind the team’s socially-distant workouts. One of manager Gabe Kapler’s first hires, Correa came to the Giants in the offseason from the Cleveland Indians organization, where he worked as a minor league infield coordinator often responsible for scheduling spring workouts involving 200-plus players and coaches.
Prior to working in professional baseball, Correa coached in the small college ranks at the University of Puget Sound and the University of Northern Colorado where he overhauled the way teams approached infield instruction, recruiting and even program fundraising.
The experience made Correa a natural fit with Kapler, who wanted his staff to prioritize efficiency, player development and communication. Since the pandemic brought sports to a halt, Correa feels the organization has delivered on its mission.
“From a process standpoint, how well it’s gone is a direct reflection of the silo-less culture that’s been built under the modern Giants in Farhan (Zaidi) and Scott (Harris) and Kap,” Correa said. “Because the groups are so interconnected, be it minor league player development, facilities, grounds crew, baseball ops, the field staff and the front office, that’s where it starts.”
From mid-March through mid-June, leaders from each group Correa mentioned were in constant communication. Each time Major League Baseball discussed a new proposal for restarting the league, members of the organization analyzed how the team could safely begin practicing again.
“Anything from doing it in Arizona to doing it here to doing it at two sites, it was talked about, discussed and planned for,” Correa said. “One of the things I’m most proud of is our staff and our front office and all of the different departments, one of the reasons we’ve been so prepared is they were willing to do work that may not have paid off.”
When Commissioner Rob Manfred finally announced the league planned to implement a 60-game season on June 22, the Giants had already developed a master plan to reconfigure Oracle Park in a way that would allow the team to host socially distant workouts.
It’s impossible to keep players six feet apart at all times, but players and coaches have been wearing masks, working in small groups and spending as little time indoors as possible.
“Our former players’ parking garage is now our weight room, our warmup room and a place where we can take ground balls and almost long toss because it’s such a big space,” Kapler said. “We’ve got no fewer than six tunnels to hit in. We’ve got portable mounds in each corner, plus we’ve got our brand new bullpens and mounds in dugouts.”
Ballparks around the league have been reimagined to prioritize player safety, but the Giants are one of the few teams that have not yet sent a portion of players from their pool to an alternative training site. Every healthy player in the Giants’ pool is working out in San Francisco and receiving instruction from a 13-coach staff, which is the biggest in the majors.
The logistics of coordinating travel, coronavirus intake tests and initial workout schedules required a herculean effort, and Kapler, Correa and members of the front office credit first-year traveling secretary Abe Silvestri and senior director of athletic training Dave Groeschner for working around the clock to ensure the process flows as smooth as possible.
Taking the field on a daily basis during a pandemic hasn’t come without issues –the Giants canceled Tuesday’s workout after coronavirus test results from Saturday had not been received– but the greatest hurdle in the process was out of the organization’s control. If not for a delay in processing tests at a league-approved site in Salt Lake City, the biggest complaint the Giants could lodge at this point in the process has to do with generous strike zones.
“One of the things that hasn’t gone according to plan is we could just do a better job as a group of calling balls and strikes in these sim games,” Kapler said. “We’ve kind of left it up to catchers. We know that Major League Baseball is going to help us with umpires and that’s going to give the umpires a chance to get up to speed at some point and so I think that’s one of my own pet peeves.”
Many of the Giants’ veteran players have expressed their gratitude for the organization’s efforts to ensure their health and safety, but the time spent preparing for a summer workout schedule also focused on smaller details that should pay dividends early in the season.
Outside of implementing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and producing training regimens designed to limit injuries, the Giants’ staff labored to ensure workouts and live batting practice sessions would create realistic opportunities for players to prepare in game-like scenarios.
“Making sure they see a correct distribution of right- and left-handed pitching, making sure double play partners work together, making sure they’re in groups that are also manageable for a coach-to-player ratio, making sure pitching buildups are appropriate,” Correa said. “Those are kind of all of those things.”
When the Giants first devised daily practice schedules, they received suggestions and approval from the medical staff, the strength and conditioning staff, baseball operations analysts, the clubhouse staff and veteran players.
Instead of following a more traditional model of giving players a time to report to the ballpark each day and letting them know what a workout would look like piece-by-piece, coaches send out minute-by-minute schedules of daily activities in advance so players know exactly what to expect.
Providing players with detailed information ahead of time isn’t a result of new planning spurred by the pandemic, but instead one of many changes the Giants’ staff implemented during spring training in Arizona.
“My thought process is you get greater flexibility and buy-in when people can prepare for what’s coming next,” Correa said. “The game is tough enough in itself and you have to make adjustments to pitches and to batters, you shouldn’t also have to make adjustments to schedule.”
One of the most important people with hands in the decision-making and scheduling processes is Ron Wotus, the only holdover from Bruce Bochy’s staff and a coach who knows the habits and routines of many of the Giants’ veteran players. Wotus knows what’s feasible to expect from players and Correa said he’s been an invaluable part of planning the summer.
While all of the preparation has paid off during the first week, the Giants know they must be flexible and able to adapt on the fly. Players will suffer injuries or setbacks, workout groups will change and as the Giants learned this week, MLB’s testing process can send things spiraling out of control quickly.
For all the work spent preparing socially distant workouts, there will be several hundred more hours focused on responding to the challenges and needs at hand.
“You can put whatever science you want to it, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to have those conversations. ‘How are you feeling? Do you need a lighter day?’” Correa said. “It’s filtering through that plus what the information tells us in building out matchups and workloads and that’s going to be the bulk of creating the best opportunity for iron to sharpen iron.”