Webb, Giants expect to see even more after ace's strong 2022

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NEW YORK -- For the second year in a row, Logan Webb will be the first Giants pitcher to take the ball, and for a second year in a row, Giants fans who enter from the main gate at Oracle Park will see a massive image of the homegrown ace as they approach.

Both are well-deserved honors for a young right-hander who broke through in 2021 and then backed it all up during a season that was mostly filled with disappointment for the organization. Webb made 32 starts last year and set career-highs in innings and strikeouts while lowering his ERA to 2.90. He was 14th among MLB pitchers in WAR, received All-Star consideration in July, and was listed fourth on a Cy Young ballot in November. 

And yet, when Webb arrived back in San Francisco last month for FanFest, he frowned as he thought of his 2022 season.

"I told you guys this last year," he said. "I didn't like my season, necessarily."

It was something Webb said in September and again in the offseason. At various times over the spring, he expressed minor levels of frustration. After pitching well in his final tuneup before Opening Day, Webb smiled and pointed out a flaw.

"The walks kind of pissed me off," he said. 

For Webb and the Giants, this is nothing new. It's also why they think there's a lot more in the tank. Gabe Kapler, Andrew Bailey and the staff continually have challenged the youngest member of the rotation, and even as he started to flirt with stardom in 2021, Kapler repeatedly pointed out that there was more Webb could be doing. Webb has taken that approach, too, and the older members of the staff are excited to see where it leads him. 

"I'm looking for him to just walk around with the confidence that he's the best pitcher in the game," right-hander Alex Cobb said. "That's all he needs to worry about. There's a time when you're young in your career and you know you're good, you just don't know how good you are. I think putting back-to-back years together like he did, he knows how good he is now and what his potential is.

"There's a handful of pitchers that you talk about being the best in the league and he's in that category. Now it's just him putting it all together to be the best."

The next step for Webb will be to fully throw his name into that conversation, and it's what Kapler expects. He is a manager who hates publicly setting expectations or talking too much about where the team and players stand compared to others, but he said at the end of camp that there's no reason this can't be the start of a long run when Webb is competing for Cy Young Awards.

To get there, Webb knows there are adjustments to be made. His overall numbers were good in 2022, but he wasn't thrilled with how he reached the endpoint. Webb's home run and walk rates stayed level year over year, but his strikeout rate dipped from 9.6 per nine innings to 7.6. His expected statistics took a slight step back, and for long stretches, he just didn't feel quite like himself on the mound. Webb's sinker and slider both were hit harder in 2021, and the latter pitch saw decreases in vertical and horizontal movement. 

The slider is a pitch Webb spent a lot of time thinking about this spring, and he didn't just go the traditional way of checking in with similar pitchers. Asked about the pitch late in camp, Webb pointed to prospect Kyle Harrison and veteran Taylor Rogers as two pitchers he spent a lot of time with. Both throw left-handed, but Webb would pick their brains about where they want the pitch to start as it works its way into or out of the zone. 

After his final spring outing, Webb said the pitch "feels 100 percent better." The mechanical adjustments he made in the offseason have locked into place, too.

"There were some changes that I think I needed to make a little bit in the offseason with my mechanics, my delivery a little bit, just to sustain it a little bit longer where I'm not going through months where I did last year where it's just a grind," he said. "The velocity fluctuated a lot and that's something we really wanted to dive deep into. We found out there were some mechanical things. I don't think you'll really notice it when you watch me out there, but I feel it, I notice it."

Webb's first opportunity to test everything out in games that count will come on the biggest possible stage. He'll take the ball Thursday at Yankee Stadium and look in at Aaron Judge, a player he met with in November and tried to convince to come to San Francisco

Had Judge or Carlos Correa signed, it likely would have been their face on the poster hanging from the entrance at Third and King. But it will be Webb, pumping his fist with a huge smile on his face. It's an image that teammates find appropriate. 

As he thought about his first couple of months with Webb, new starter Ross Stripling compared him to former Los Angeles Dodgers teammate Clayton Kershaw. For four days a week, Webb is all smiles, traversing the clubhouse and talking to anybody and everybody. One of the team's biggest stars might also be among the leaders in time spent at the ballpark, but on that fifth day, it all changes.

"He's got that edge to him that you love to see from a starter, which is Kershaw-like in a way, where he's very happy-go-lucky, he's an awesome teammate, and then when the lights are on he's a competitor and he wants to beat you," Stripling said. "Most guys have that, but you see him have that to another level that you see the greats have, where they can turn a switch in their mind where they're just looking for blood."

RELATED: Webb eager for under-the-radar Giants to 'prove people wrong'

The switch will flip Thursday at Yankee Stadium, a place Webb has never visited. He traveled to Cooperstown when he was a child and visited the old one, but Wednesday's workout was his first chance to see the new one. It will be one of the biggest regular-season games Webb has pitched in and he said he's excited, while also trying to keep things normal. 

Asked about facing Judge, Webb pointed out that the Yankees have multiple MVPs on their roster. It's a group filled with star power, and more and more over the last couple of years, Webb has found himself in those circles. Now it's about what's next, and whether Webb will be happy with it all at the end of the season. 

"I've got some high expectations. I've got to try and keep them to myself a little bit," he said, smiling. "I'll tell you at the end of the year."

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