SAN FRANCISCO — Madison Bumgarner’s bullpen session on Saturday looked normal in almost every respect. Manager Bruce Bochy, pitching coach Curt Young and bullpen coach Matt Herges stood a few feet behind the pitcher, watching his mechanics and the movement of his pitches. Andrew Suarez, who would follow with his between-starts bullpen, sat on the grass as a spectator. Eli Whiteside caught Bumgarner, and special assistant Will Clark stood in the box to mimic a hitter. At Bumgarner’s feet was a bag of baseballs to help him get through his work.
There was a new element, though, one that wasn’t present for Bumgarner’s rehab work last season but will likely be standard for the Giants moving forward.
Behind Bumgarner’s left shoulder was a mounted camera shooting super slow motion images of his pitch grips, hand movement and release point. Behind the plate, the Giants set up a Rapsodo device to track everything from velocity and spin rate to horizontal and vertical break. Both devices had cords running directly to laptops held by members of the baseball operations staff. In real time, they were able to provide Bumgarner with any sort of data or image he might want.
Some team officials were surprised that Bumgarner, known for an old-school approach to reading a hitter’s swing during an at-bat, would want the machines set up. But he did look at the results after his bullpen session.
“I was trying it out. I was just curious about it, really,” Bumgarner said. “It tracks everything. Where the ball goes through the zone, release point, it gets your hand coming through in super slow motion. You can adjust if you need to. You’re not going to get a better look at (your pitches). It’s info to have, and that’s what I was curious about.”
Bumgarner didn’t need Rapsodo to know that he’s ready for a minor league rehab assignment Saturday in Sacramento. He could feel that his arm strength had returned but that his off-speed pitches needed work. Giants coaches are wary, too, about putting too much stock into the spin rate and velocity numbers for a rehab bullpen session, knowing that everything ticks up with the adrenaline of a game situation.
But just as Bumgarner was curious, the team is, too. Trainer Dave Groeschner envisions a day in the near future when the data helps determine how a pitcher’s rehab is going.
“In theory, down the road, you should know how the ball is spinning right away, and — especially with a guy like Bum, who is coming off a hand injury — you could see if he’s getting back to normal.” Groeschner said. “We haven’t used it to determine where he’s at because we haven’t had a baseline, but it’s nice to see the info.”
The baseline is key for practical use. The Giants acquired the technology in the offseason and started using it at their Arizona facility in January. During spring training, about 15 pitchers had their data logged while throwing off a mound on a back field at Scottsdale Stadium. That sets a baseline going forward and they can always check back and compare themselves to those healthy numbers, but because this is relatively new to the Giants, most of their established pitchers have not gone through that process. Bumgarner did not, and thus did not have baseline data to compare Saturday’s data to, but the staff still found the slow motion images of his hand placement and release point to be useful.
Mark Melancon also used Rapsodo during some of his rehab bullpen sessions and the Giants expect it to be the norm going forward. It tracks eight pitch metrics and can show a 3D version of the ball’s path through the strike zone. It’s already used by other teams, including the Astros, Indians and Phillies, organizations known to be on the front lines of baseball’s data revolution. The Giants generally try to be quiet about their use of advanced metrics and emerging technology, but there was no way to hide a couple of cameras mounted around their franchise pitcher.
“We’re just trying to use it with as many guys as we can,” Groeschner said. “I think eventually, when we get more baseline results, it’ll help us with guys returning from injury. There are a lot of things you can take out of the numbers.”