Giants' Pat Burrell empathizes with Jorge Soler: 'I know how hard it is to DH'

SAN FRANCISCO — If you ask Giants hitting coach Pat Burrell about one of his slumping players, you aren’t likely to hear about mechanics. You probably won’t get a detailed breakdown on a hitter’s stride length or ground interface or their newest timing mechanism. He won’t have statistics on bat speed or barrel accuracy memorized and ready to spout.

Burrell assists hitting coaches Justin Viele and Pedro Guerrero on all those technical aspects: diagnosing issues and helping players to put themselves in the best position to do damage at the plate. But Burrell’s primary contribution is on the mental side. That’s half the battle — or 90 percent of it, with the other half being physical, as Yogi Berra once said — and even former first overall draft picks like Burrell will endure their share of mental challenges during their playing career.

It’s what has allowed Burrell to identify so closely with designated hitter Jorge Soler.

“I have a ton of sympathy for him,” said Burrell, “because I know how hard it is to DH.”

Before Burrell hit 18 home runs for the Giants in 2010, before his contributions at the plate helped to push them to an NL West title that they clinched on the final day of the regular season, and before he imbued their clubhouse with a confident, above-it-all attitude that allowed them to wash off devastating losses and fight for comeback victories all the way to a World Series parade, Burrell was a failed DH on release waivers.

He had been in the second season of a two-year, $16 million contract with the Tampa Bay Rays that was a failure for both sides. Burrell had a bad season in 2009. He started off 2010 by hitting .202 with two home runs in 24 games before the Rays had seen enough. They cut him loose on May 14.

“I just ran out of time and I totally understood,” said Burrell, who was also going through a divorce at the time. “I just felt bad that I forced them to make that move. But there was something inside that told me, ‘You’ve still got something left.’ I’m fortunate that I found that opportunity.”

That opportunity came with the Giants, who assigned him to Triple-A Fresno and called him up after five games while hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. They did. Everyone did.

The Giants needed to be more than talented or lucky to be the team that broke through decades of frustration. They couldn’t win a World Series with Willie Mays or Barry Bonds, after all. It would take a group of players who were bold enough or crazy enough to believe that they could achieve something that the greatest players in franchise history did not.

“But none of it comes without the struggle,” Burrell said.

Burrell was 32 years old in 2010. Soler is 33 now. But the parallels only go so far. Soler isn’t on the verge of receiving release papers. He’s only three months into a three-year, $42 million contract. His bat speed hasn’t taken a precipitous dip. He’s been sufficiently productive when batting with the bases empty, hitting .255 with an .846 OPS in 107 plate appearances entering Wednesday.

It’s those other 118 plate appearances, the ones with runners on base, that continue to be an issue.

Soler has stepped to the plate in dozens of situations when a 400-foot drive could flip the script on a game or put one away. He hasn’t done it. He entered Wednesday batting .158 with runners in scoring position. Six of his seven home runs have been solo shots.

He has come to the plate with 174 runners on base and scored just 12 of them (including one on a double-play grounder for which he received no RBI). His 6.9 percent scoring success rate is the third lowest among 214 major league hitters who have batted with at least 100 runners on base. Only the Texas Rangers’ Leody Taveras and the Washington Nationals’ Joey Gallo have a lower success rate.

When the Giants signed Soler, all the breathy talk was that they finally had a hitter whose power was so prolific that it would be immune to the chilly temperatures at their waterfront ballpark. And that they’d finally have their first 30-homer season since Barry Bonds in 2004.

Instead, Soler is on a pace to hit just 16.

There have been encouraging signs in recent days, though. Soler, batting sixth, reached base in all four plate appearances Wednesday and started the Giants’ three-run rally in the fourth inning as they beat the Houston Astros 5-3 to take two of three in the series. Soler walked twice and singled twice, including a blooper that fell in shallow right field — not exactly the wall-bashing hits that he’s known for, but perhaps the start of a turning point.

As Burrell sees it, a bloop can be as good as a blast when it comes to turning the mental page.

“He’ll get it,” Burrell said. “The only thing we can do is keep working and keep reinforcing that it’s close. There’s a lot more baseball in him. More than anything I feel for him because I know how much pressure he’s putting on himself, and that’s normal. When you come up in those big spots, you want to do big things.

“But you have to allow your confidence to build over time. It’s a couple big hits in the right spot that propels it.”

It can’t hurt that Soler has a hitting coach who understands the particular challenges of being a DH in a slump. Burrell was accustomed to playing left field in Philadelphia and the fit with Tampa Bay was poor from the start. He only had one avenue to contribute to the team and that was his three or four plate appearances per game. What’s worse, he had nothing else to distract him from thinking about his failures at the plate. He didn’t even have the simple diversion of jogging to and from his position each inning. He didn’t appreciate how isolating the DH position can be. His pregame preparation was different. The work he’d do to stay loose between at-bats put him on a different track during games.

“I really struggled with it,” Burrell said. “I just didn’t feel like I was part of something. They were paying me quite a bit to do it, too. And I was failing terribly.”

Soler arrived with the Giants already accustomed to the role. He’s made 384 of his 869 career starts as a DH. Burrell noted that Soler hasn’t been reclusive or off on his own program during his time as a Giant. He’s cheering on his teammates during games and diligently going about his early work.

“I love Jorgie,” Burrell said. “He’s working so hard. All we’re trying to do is stay positive with him and keep him going. Coming to a new team, coming to the West Coast, things haven’t been easy for him. So as a group we just continue to try to show him how much we care about him and how important he will be to this team. His time will come.

“I know he doesn’t think he’s contributed enough. But if we keep reinforcing the big picture, he’ll be the guy that can carry the club for weeks at a time. He’s that kind of player.”

Not every struggling veteran turns it around, of course, but the Giants continue to show faith in established track records. They weren’t swayed by outside criticism last week when they decided to activate outfielder Austin Slater from the concussion list and reinstall him atop the lineup against left-handed starters.

Slater contributed the walk-off hit in the 10th inning Monday night. He singled three times on Wednesday and came through with a two-run hit off Astros left-hander Framber Valdez. Matt Chapman and Brett Wisely also contributed doubles at key times and the Giants got a pair of sacrifice flies to support Logan Webb and the Giants’ trio of frontline relievers.

Slater hasn’t stayed healthy for several seasons and his numbers entering June were rough, but the sample was so small that it’s only taken a handful of productive games to turn them around. His on-base percentage following Wednesday’s victory was up to .349. His career OBP is .346.

“That’s kind of what he does, top of the order against lefties,” said Giants manager Bob Melvin, asked if Slater was rewarding the team’s confidence in him. “I don’t think it has anything to do with me. It’s just him settling in, getting consistent at-bats and doing his thing.”

The hope across the organization is that Melvin will be able to make similar comments about Soler in the near future.

“It’s gonna come,” Melvin said. “This guy has a long history of being a really good hitter and a run producer and a World Series hero and all those things. It’s a new place and a lot of new things for him. It’s going to come around.”

(Photo of Soler: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)

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