Giants

Bumgarner's rehab includes use of new pitch tracking technology

rapsodo.jpg
Alex Pavlovic

Bumgarner's rehab includes use of new pitch tracking technology

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.”

Giants prospect Sean Hjelle shines, lights up radar gun in spring debut

Giants prospect Sean Hjelle shines, lights up radar gun in spring debut

MESA, Ariz. -- With the Giants nursing a one-run lead in the eighth inning Sunday, manager Gabe Kapler called right-handed prospect Luis Madero into the game. As Madero faced the A's, Sean Hjelle started warming up in the bullpen. Kapler saw Hjelle getting loose and called down to make sure he knew he was getting the ninth, not part of the eighth. 

"He was the one pitcher today who got loose before we told him to get loose," Kapler said, smiling. 

The 22-year-old, picked one round after Joey Bart in the 2018 draft, was excited to make his spring debut for the big league club and hid any butterflies. Hjelle is known for standing 6-foot-11 and having uncanny command and body control for a pitcher that size. But he came out throwing 95 mph and bumped 96 in a perfect inning, closing out a 5-3 win that clinched Kapler's first handshake line in orange and black. 

"As much as we're excited by his stuff, we're also excited by him pounding the strike zone," Kapler said. "That's certainly encouraging to see him come out there in this situation, certainly a nerve-wracking situation, and fill up the zone with his fastball."

Hjelle, the organization's top pitching prospect, reached Double-A last season and could debut this year. It was one inning and he was amped up, but the ceiling certainly will get a bit higher if he's sitting 95 in the future instead of the low 90s. The Giants always have felt there was more velocity in that massive frame. 

Here are four more observations from the first 18 innings of the Kapler Era ... 

--- There was a new whiteboard up in the clubhouse this morning with a bunch of circles and a spot for each game this spring. A photo of a beaming Austin Slater was glued inside the first circle, making him the "baserunning BOSS" from Saturday's game. The Giants have put a heavy emphasis on leads and turns this spring and the new staff has identified that as one area they can gain an edge. One player will be recognized after every game. 

We'll see if it works. This isn't a roster with much speed, but guys were aggressive Sunday and it led to a couple runs. Kapler credited first base coach Antoan Richardson for his work thus far. 

"We really want them to push the envelope," he said. 

--- Kapler has been hesitant to offer many public criticisms, but when asked about Derek Rodriguez the other day, he immediately mentioned that the staff needed to see more velocity from the starter/reliever heading into his third season. Rodriguez's average fastball dropped from 91.6 to 90.7 year over year. Rodriguez pumped a few 93s in his first inning of the spring and generally sat at 92, a positive sign this early.

"The first day of the spring, I'm happy about that," he said. 

Rodriguez said he took just two weeks off in the offseason -- to plan for his wedding -- and then got to work on mechanical changes. He made three Winter League starts and was encouraged by how he felt there. 

--- When Max Muncy came up early in Saturday's game, Evan Longoria shifted over to the right side but he didn't stand where he would last year. Longoria played kind of behind the first baseman, with Donovan Solano playing up the middle behind the bag. Last year the Giants had Longoria shift over between the second baseman and shortstop; this year he's between the second baseman and first baseman. It makes a lot more sense this way, allowing the actual second baseman to stay close to the bag where he might have to make a turn.

[RELATED: How might the Giants use 26th roster spot?]

--- Some early standouts, aside from Mauricio Dubon and Joey Bart, who homered Saturday: Matt Carasiti, a non-roster invite who struck out the side in his lone inning and got A.J. Pollock and Kiké Hernandez ... Abiatal Avelino, who hit a laser onto the berm in left on Sunday ... Kean Wong, who had two hits and showed his speed ... Finally, Rob Brantly, who has brought constant energy to camp and capped Sunday's game by yelling "Never in doubt!" as the Giants celebrated a spring win. Every team needs a quirky backup catcher, right? 

How Giants, Farhan Zaidi might choose to use new 26th roster spot

How Giants, Farhan Zaidi might choose to use new 26th roster spot

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As Giants veterans checked into camp last week, a couple of them referred to the 25-man roster in interviews. Like writing a new year on your checks, it'll take a while for players to adjust to having a 26th man.

But on the second floor of the new facility at Scottsdale Stadium, there already have been plenty of conversations about it. 

The front office has an extra roster spot to work with, and few executives will dig that more than Farhan Zaidi, who spent 2019 in an endless roster shuffle as he added depth and talent to the 40-man roster. Zaidi, general manager Scott Harris and manager Gabe Kapler have talked this spring of all the different ways they can go. 

As the Giants go through their spring rotation for the first time, it's far too early to project a full roster, especially in a camp where so many jobs are up for grabs. But we can take a look at how that roster will be impacted by the extra spot. The Giants will have 13 pitchers, that much we know. But what will they do with that 13th position player?

Pablo Sandoval

Just about seven months removed from Tommy John surgery, Sandoval already is taking part in nearly every drill, with some restrictions on his throwing. But he's a month ahead of schedule in that department, and he hasn't ruled out Opening Day. 

The staff is looking more at a May return, but they'll leave the door open for Sandoval. There's some thought that given his age (33) and the fact that he's on the back end of his career, it might be easier to push Sandoval than a younger player. He's not a 24-year-old looking for that life-changing contract; he's someone who above all simply wants to play baseball. 

Sandoval feels he's ready to pinch-hit now and he has looked sharp in early BP sessions. If, say, his throwing arm will be fully healed by mid-April, could the Giants put him on the Opening Day roster purely as a pinch-hitter and let him rehab his elbow before games? They've talked about it. 

Speed/defense

This is the Billy Hamilton section. Hamilton no longer is the 50-stolen base threat he was in Cincinnati, but he still is one of the fastest players in the game and an elite defensive center fielder. He hasn't hit enough in recent years to be a regular starter, but the Giants still could find creative ways for him to impact a game. 

Let's say Mike Yastrzemski starts in center and Hunter Pence in left and Pence leads off the sixth with a single. If you know he won't hit again until late in the game and your preference is to replace him defensively anyway, you can bring Hamilton in to pinch-run and play center, with Yastrzemski sliding to left. The Giants also have discussed making this type of move much earlier in a game to gain a slight edge. 

They don't have a true center fielder and there's not much speed on the locked-in part of the roster. The 26th spot makes it a lot easier to carry a Hamilton or Steven Duggar. 

A full infield

You start adding them up: Brandon Belt, Wilmer Flores, Mauricio Dubon, Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria ... that's five infielders before you even get to Sandoval, Donovan Solano (who had a very solid 2019) or Yolmer Sanchez (who won a Gold Glove last year and chose San Francisco over other offers, indicating he was told he has a really good shot at making the roster). 

The Giants could go with four in the outfield and use Dubon as their fifth, while keeping Solano and Sanchez on the Opening Day roster. This team may simply have to carry seven infielders at times, because that's where most of their core guys are. 

Third catcher

The Giants don't have the depth to do this but you can bet some other clubs will. Long term, though, this will be an appealing option. Zaidi has talked a lot over the past year about versatile catchers and it would be a nice boost if they could find a lefty to pair with Buster Posey and Joey Bart next year, ideally someone with options. That would allow Kapler to freely use both Posey and Bart in every game. 

Stephen Vogt, who played some left field, is in Arizona now, but someone like that would make sense in future years. The best bet would be developing a lefty-swinging catcher who could be optioned back and forth as a third guy. 

[RELATED: Watch Bart, Dubon homer in Giants' spring training opener]

Inventory

This isn't about any particular player, but adding a 26th player makes it a bit easier at the end of the spring to stash a veteran who is out of options. There are a lot of waiver claims during that final week before Opening Day rosters are set, but teams generally slow down once the season officially starts. No executive likes to lose a player who is out of options.

The Giants could stash someone on Opening Day, and then DFA him later and try to sneak him through waivers and onto the Triple-A roster.