Luis Matos

Giants hope to get Matos up to speed at center field with Lee out

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants were not alone in being drawn to Jung Hoo Lee's bat-to-ball skills in the offseason, but given the size of the contract they handed out, it's probably safe to say they were more confident than others in Lee's ability to be an everyday center fielder. That's a skill they desperately needed after recent seasons. 

Giants center fielders ranked 28th in the Majors in Outs Above Average in each of the last two seasons, and it was clear late last year that a lot of their returning options were miscast in the middle of the outfield.

Lee's arrival was supposed to change that for years to come, but there's a chance that the rest of his rookie season has been wiped out by a shoulder injury. He'll visit renowned surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache on Thursday, and the odds seem strong that he'll return to San Francisco having had surgery to repair what the Giants called "structural damage."

While Lee is out, Luis Matos will get the first crack at playing center field. It's a plan that seemed shaky after the first two games of the series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but Matos made the play of the night -- and one of the best plays of the season -- when he robbed Teoscar Hernandez of a homer to dead center in the fourth inning of a game the Giants would go on to win 4-1

"I thought it was a homer, honestly, off the bat," Logan Webb said. "It was a homer in most places. I had, like, a perfect angle of seeing it and I saw it go into the glove. You saw me, I instantly put my hands up. Then it's like, oh crap, I hope he's alright, but it was an unbelievable catch. He's a showman and that's what excites people and excites us."

Matos hit the wall just about exactly where Lee did, and on a very similar play. Like Lee, he stayed down in the dirt of the warning track, and trainer Dave Groeschner came sprinting out when Mike Yastrzemski started waving to the dugout. For Yastrzemski, Groeschner and everyone else, the same thought set in: "Here we go again."

It's been an unfathomably bad stretch on the injury front, but Matos popped up and played the rest of the game. He should be back in center field on Friday, and possibly for months to come, looking to prove that he belongs not just at this level, but in the middle of the field.

Matos was a center fielder in the minors, but after last season, the Giants felt more comfortable with him in a corner. In 60 big league games in center, he has been worth negative-six Outs Above Average, a stat mostly backed up by the eye test. On Monday, two hard-hit balls got over his head, including one that landed right after Matos stumbled. On Tuesday, a ball bounced off his glove in left-center, allowing Freddie Freeman to reach third on an error.

Matos also homered in his first at-bat back and drove in five runs in the series. The Giants want to keep his bat in the lineup, and they need to do it in center. The best defensive option might be Yastrzemski, but the staff wants him in right field since that's the harder position at Oracle Park and Yastrzemski handles it as well as anyone. Heliot Ramos is getting a look as an everyday player, but he's not viewed as a center field option. 

Manager Bob Melvin plans to be patient through any mistakes. Matos has been working at all three outfield spots since the spring, but Melvin is hopeful that focusing on just center field can make a difference. 

"I think (he's) bat-first, but I think the more he plays one particular position, the more comfortable he'll get," he said of Matos' defense. 

Already, the Giants have made an adjustment that seems to be paying off. When Gavin Lux hit a double to the track Monday, Matos had a starting depth of 316 feet. He was 314 feet away from the plate when Will Smith hit a go-ahead double to the track in center Monday, but Matos was set up 322 feet away when Hernandez came to the plate Wednesday. He said bench/outfield coach Ryan Christenson suggested that he start playing a bit deeper. 

"That's what I did and it was a great result doing that," he said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. "Especially with those (Dodgers) hitters, they've been hitting the ball pretty hard my way, so it was good that I was playing deep."

The Giants will continue to work with Matos on his positioning and jumps. When he was tearing it up this spring, the hope was that he could soon slide in alongside Lee in a corner, but for at least a couple of months, he'll be replacing the big offseason addition. Long term, Lee still profiles as the club's center fielder, but the Giants are in win-now mode, and they were encouraged by Matos' big all-around night on Wednesday. The robbery was their first against the Dodgers since Mike Tauchman's memorable catch in 2021. 

Once he saw that Matos was fine physically, Yastrzemski was able to help him celebrate a huge play. It was an important moment for a 22-year-old who now will develop at the big league level.

"He's going to have to be really aggressive," Yastrzemski said. "He's got to attack the ball and be committed to his read. Sometimes it seems like there's a little hesitation, it's something we've talked about, and today with that play he showed that he took that away. That was really good to see. I'm really excited for him and it's just kind of going to be an ongoing conversation. 

"Those are things that aren't going to be immediate fixes, those are things that you have to focus on daily and really put in a whole lot of effort. I think he's definitely wanting to do that, which is great to see."

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