Wednesday, September 27

‘How did that not leave the yard?’ — If home run suppression is real, how will it impact Giants-Dodgers?

John Brebbia released the pitch, landed at the front of the mound and reacted with a little spin hop. If body language can be universal, then every pitcher understood what that hop meant. A roulette player hops that way when the ball rattles into black instead of red. A high handicapper hops that way when a rare birdie putt lips out.

It’s the regretful reproach of a pitcher who just got absolutely torched for a home run.

“I thought it was going to kill someone trying to catch it in the 10th row,” said Brebbia, who declined to watch the full flight of Cody Bellinger’s deep drive in the seventh inning Tuesday night. “That’s not something I needed to see.”

Instead, Brebbia turned and called for a new baseball. He was confused when he saw plate umpire Dan Menzel jogging from his position.

“I thought he was clowning around,” Brebbia said. “Like, ‘Please give me another ball. We just lost that one.’ And he said, ‘You’re allowed to look.’ I’m sure he thought it was really funny. And that’s when I turned back around.”

And saw Giants center fielder Mauricio Dubón, who had caught the ball on the warning track and was tossing it back to the infield.

“If Bellinger’s ball’s not gonna get out… ppffhhhuhhh,” Brebbia said. “Then that’s unbelievable. If that ball’s not leaving the yard, then I don’t know what it will. It was hit 150 miles per hour.”

More like 102.3 mph, according to Statcast. But the point holds. The ball had an expected average of .790. It was one of several well struck drives that found gloves Tuesday night. The Giants were playing for the first time at Dodger Stadium since Game 4 of the NLDS last season, when an unprecedented scirocco whipped through the ballpark, turned the place into Candlestick South, covered fans in a layer of gritty dust and knocked down everything except one drive that Evan Longoria somehow slipped into the left-field pavilion in the Giants’ 1-0 victory.

Those weren’t the conditions for Tuesday night’s first meeting between the two rivals this season. It was clear and calm, typical for a springtime night game here. The air was a bit heavier. It took a little bit more oomph to park one.

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“But it doesn’t do that,” Dubón said following the Giants’ 3-1 loss. “I went back to the wall and it just died. I couldn’t believe it.”

It’s a small sample. It’s anecdotal evidence. But it’s starting to pile up. The ball isn’t traveling like it did a year ago. The standardized use of a humidor might have something to do with it. Regardless of the reason, if home run suppression is real, then it’ll have a significant impact on the two teams that sprinted to the finish in the NL West last season while winning 107 and 106 games. It could totally change how these two archrivals compete against one another.

The Giants set a franchise record and led the National League with 241 home runs last season. The Dodgers were third with 237. Both teams posted home run-to-fly ball ratios (15.6 percent for the Giants, 14.6 percent for the Dodgers) well above the league average of 13.6 percent. They erased late deficits with homers. They built big leads with homers. They might have been the two most dangerous offensive clubs in the NL because, from the top of the lineup to the eighth-place hitter, they could hurt you with one swing at any time. And they could hurt you with any number of bench options, too. The Giants’ 16 pinch-hit homers set a major-league record.

So it was starting to watch how their first meeting of the season played out Tuesday night. The Dodgers used two walks, a wild pitch and a two-strike single to build a two-run lead on Carlos Rodón in the second inning. The Giants used an infield single, an error, a productive out in front of the plate and a sacrifice fly to claw one back in the seventh. The Dodgers got it back in the eighth when they scored on a wild pitch.

With the Giants down to their final out in the ninth inning, Luis González stepped to the plate representing the typing run. He didn’t attempt to tie the game with one slugging swing, as hitters like LaMonte Wade Jr. and Donovan Solano did so memorably last season.

Instead, González bunted for a hit. Then Luke Williams got fooled on Craig Kimbrel’s breaking ball and grounded out to end it.

The at-bat quality was there. Wilmer Flores led off the ninth by drawing a nine-pitch walk against Kimbrel. Thairo Estrada worked an eight-pitch at-bat and fouled off several fastballs at the top of the zone before flying out. But the results and the rewards were not there.

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“Ultimately, positive results come from good at-bats,” Giants first baseman Darin Ruf said. “So you’ve got to keep grinding and hope it evens out.”

That’s become a daily affirmation for Ruf, whose first two balls in play — at 107.8 mph and 105 mph off the bat — resulted in a double-play grounder and a hard one-hopper right at the second baseman. Ruf ranks in the 76th percentile for average exit velocity and the 78th percentile for hard-hit rate. He’s taking his walks, mostly swinging at strikes and mostly making good swing decisions. His barrel rate is down from last season, but his average launch angle is higher. On more than a few occasions, he’s turned hopeful eyes to a well struck ball that had a chance to find the seats.

He’s still looking for his first home run. He’s batting .172.

“I think back to last year and I don’t remember lining out once,” Ruf said. “Every hard contact seemed to fail. This year, it’s not. It’s more mentally exhausting when that happens. I’ve had a feeling I was (making hard contact), but I don’t look at the numbers, necessarily. I mean, expected stats are great but they’re fake.

“In this game, you’ve got to keep showing up and grinding and keep having good at-bats and hope things will change.”

And what if it doesn’t? You stick with your approach, right?

Welllll…Ruf said. “Possibly. You have to hit a ball pretty hard to hit a homer. If you have to hit it even harder, or if the odds of hitting a homer go down and down and down, then yeah, in certain situations, you might look to shorten up and go the other way. You’re gonna try to find another way to get on base. You have to adapt to what’s happening in the game.”

Those conversations are already happening. Ball flight dominated chatter among Giants players in the postgame dining room.

Mookie Betts makes a leaping catch on Tuesday. (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But let’s back up for a moment and tick off the standard caveats, because all of them apply. It’s early. Although studies showed reduced ball flight even after attempting to control for early-season weather patterns, it isn’t summertime yet. And the Giants haven’t had the same firepower because Wade and Longoria and Tommy La Stella haven’t taken a major-league at-bat this season. The trio formed the top of the order in a rehab game for Triple-A Sacramento on Tuesday. The Giants are also missing Mike Yastrzemski, whom they hope to activate from the COVID-19 list on Wednesday, and Brandon Belt, who should be cleared to return soon after that.

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The Dodgers are at fuller strength but not quite full capacity. Max Muncy is batting .130 with two home runs. Justin Turner is at .179 with one homer. Trea Turner has contributed the same WAR to the Dodgers as Estrada has to the Giants, and as nice a compliment as that might be to Estrada, it probably reveals more about how the Dodgers’ star shortstop has been plugging along.

But the at-bat quality was there for the Dodgers as well Tuesday night. Rodón threw 54 of his wood-boring fastballs, the Dodgers swung 29 times and whiffed just twice. Trea Turner threaded a one-out double in the sixth inning. Rodón stranded him, but required 694 combined feet of ball flight from Will Smith and Muncy to do so.

Both teams are still putting more balls in the seats than the league average, but not by nearly as much. Entering Tuesday, the Giants’ home run-to-fly ball rate was 11.9 percent, which ranked ninth in the majors. The Dodgers were at 10.6 percent, which ranked 14th. The overall rate was just 10 percent.

So it’s possible that all the spring training emphasizes the Giants placed on bunting for hits and stealing bases and searching the crevices for small advantages might become more applicable than anyone anticipated. It’s also possible that the Dodgers will find a way to separate themselves. For as even matched as these two teams were last season, the Dodgers led the majors in hard-hit rate. The Giants ranked 21st. Simply put, the Dodgers have been better at hitting the ball hard in every direction and at every trajectory.

Or maybe Ruf’s hopes will be realized, the Giants will get healthier and the home runs will begin to even out.

It’s not like anyone has the answer. But for now, the first four weeks of the season most definitely has raised a few questions — one more than any other.

“I mean, how?” Brebbia said. “How did that not leave the yard?”

(Top photo of Wilmer Flores: Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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