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SF Giants’ latest bid to fix offensive woes: Sage, Palo Santo, incense

SF Giants’ latest bid to fix offensive woes: Sage, Palo Santo, incense

SAN FRANCISCO — Mark Mathias had a headache.

Set to start his first game at Oracle Park, where he grew up attending games, the Fremont native took a seat in the dugout Saturday a few hours before first pitch. He needed some fresh air — a break from the overpowering scent wafting from the batting cages behind the dugout.

That aroma, Mathias learned, was that of incense, sage and Palo Santo wood, courtesy of hitting coach Justin Viele.

More than a month in to the majors’ worst team-wide slump, the Giants have gone from the analytical to the spiritual. From tee work to chi work.

“JV, he’s into that sort of thing,” said manager Gabe Kapler, who let out a hearty chuckle at the idea. “Sage is funny. It smells good.”

Hey, maybe he’s onto something.

“Yaz was out there taking a live batting practice session today. JV had the sage out, and Yaz was taking some good swings,” Kapler said of outfielder Mike Yastrzemski. “So, who knows?”

Now, it’s not all the Giants are doing to break out of their offensive funk. They’re scouring scouting reports and taking swings against high-velocity pitching machines. They are getting healthier, with Thairo Estrada back recently, and Mitch Haniger and Yastrzemski on the mend.

But none of it has solved the Giants’ biggest issue that’s persisted since at least the start of July.

Since July 1, the Giants rank dead last in almost every major offensive statistical category: batting average (.206), OPS (.616), home runs (28) and the big one — runs scored (114). The only hitter in their lineup in that time with an OPS better than .700 is Wilmer Flores, who along with the strong work of a patchwork pitching staff has been the primary reason the Giants have gone 16-18 during the dismal offensive stretch.

“You’ve gotta ride the waves,” Viele said. “These guys, we’re not judging them on the past 40 games. We know they’re better than this. We know they’re going to get out of this. Hitting is hard. We just have to ride the wave and keep the process in check.”

The most baffling part of the Giants’ struggles might be that the underlying data hasn’t changed all that much from the first two months of the season, when they were one of the better-hitting clubs in the majors. But there is one clear outlier.

Giants’ batted ball data

March-June vs. July-August

Hard-hit rate: 32.1% vs. 30.2%
Line drive rate: 20.5% vs. 18.9%
Fly ball rate: 38.2% vs. 39.5%
HR/FB rate: 13% vs. 8.9%
Strikeout rate: 25.2% vs. 24.0%
Walk rate: 9% vs. 8.7%
Batting average on balls in play: .312 vs. .254

“Batting average on balls in play hurt us a lot in July,” Viele said. “Our at-bat quality hasn’t been where I watch a game and I’m like, man, those are bad at-bats. That’s generally what I’m valuing: Were our at-bats good? Did we give away at-bats? At the end of the day, if we can control the zone, we know that over the course of time, we’re going to score runs and we’re going to be fine.”

The challenge is preventing the slump from spiraling, even when everything leading up to the outcome — the pregame preparation, the swing decision, even the quality of contact — is sound from the coaching staff’s perspective. Since the start of July, the Giants have made 176 outs on balls that left the bat at 95 mph or more, the definition of hard contact, ninth-most in the majors. They have made another 46 outs on balls hit at least 350 feet, also ninth-most in the majors.

“If a guy lines out, more times than not, they’re pretty mad,” Viele said. “Maybe they try to do more the next at-bat, and then that snowballs to 10 at-bats. Or they hit a ball to the wall that they thought should’ve been a homer, and that snowballs. So it’s a lot of managing that.”

That brings us back to the scents emanating from the batting cages before Saturday’s game.

Palo Santo, a light wood which translates from Spanish to “holy wood,” has been used for “thousands of years … to treat pain and stress (and) clear negative energy,” according to Healthline, while burning sage has been “used to achieve a healing state — or to solve or reflect upon spiritual dilemmas.” However, it states, “there isn’t a lot of scientific proof” behind Palo Santo, though the use of sage “may have some scientific basis.”

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Their appearance at Oracle Park was more than just a shot in the dark, though. It’s a way of life for Viele, who also follows astrology.

“I love incense. I love sage. I love Palo Santo. I burn a lot of wood,” Viele said. “I do it in the offseason, too. I have a chiminea at home, so I burn a lot of wood. I love going to the lumber yard and getting a lot of wood. I don’t mean to get too zen, but I think aroma spikes the sense that creates some serotonin in your brain. Maybe it’s just me, but it makes me happy when I smell something good.”

Notable

— OF Mike Yastrzemski (hamstring) could return any day. Not expected to go on a rehab assignment, the last hurdle for Yastrzemski is his ability to bounce back the next day from full-steam base running, Kapler said. … OF Mitch Haniger (forearm) took his first swings against live pitching in the batting cage Friday. … RHP John Brebbia (lat) threw a bullpen Friday, his first time throwing off a mound since he went on the IL in June.