Giants

Could Madison Bumgarner's bad road stats hurt him in MLB free agency?

Could Madison Bumgarner's bad road stats hurt him in MLB free agency?

Madison Bumgarner is entering free agency at a curious time in his career. The longtime Giants ace has built a legendary reputation, but plenty of question marks also surround the 30-year-old.

Bumgarner proved he's still a workhorse after missing time the previous two seasons with freak injuries. His 34 starts were tied for the MLB lead, and his 207 2/3 innings pitched ranked second in the NL.

But while looking at Bumgarner's stats from this past season, one thing stands out that could hurt him in free agency and actually help the Giants if they want to bring back the left-hander.

MadBum's home-road splits were staggering in 2019. He was a completely different pitcher in front of the home crowd at Oracle Park, compared to pitching away from San Francisco.

Here are Bumgarner's home stats this past season, compared to when he pitched on the road.

Home: 19 GS, 6-2, 2.93 ERA, 122 2/3 IP, 40 ER, 15 HR, 120 SO, 21 BB, 0.93 WHIP, 5.71 SO/W
Away: 15 GS, 3-7, 5.29 ERA, 85 IP, 50 ER, 15 HR, 83 SO, 22 BB, 1.41 WHIP, 3.77 SO/W

Oracle Park is known as a pitcher's dream. In fact, the Giants' home park was the least favorable for offenses this season by Park Factors, per ESPN. The 11-year veteran used that his advantage, but that luxury didn't follow him on the road.

Bumgarner allowed the same amount of homers in four fewer road games as he did at home. He also walked one more batter and allowed five more hits -- 98 on the road, compared to 93 at home. For someone with a lot of mileage on his arm and his fastball declining in velocity, that's certainly alarming.

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As a pitcher who's never tested the open market and has spent his entire career in a pitcher's paradise, these numbers will be looked at closely by front offices around the league this offseason.

Bumgarner figures to join Gerrit Cole, among others, as the most coveted starting pitchers in free agency. So, while his road numbers could help the Giants in keeping him in San Francisco, they also could prevent the veteran from signing the hefty contract he likely desires.

What Giants new manager Gabe Kapler learned from time in Philadelphia

What Giants new manager Gabe Kapler learned from time in Philadelphia

SAN FRANCISCO -- For most of an hour Wednesday, Gabe Kapler answered questions from the media about what he had learned in Los Angeles. Kapler may never outrun that incident in the eyes of many Giants fans, but at some point, the focus of his tenure will turn to another question. 

What did he learn in Philadelphia?

The Giants felt comfortable enough with Kapler and his past to hire him and give him a three-year deal. Will he last all three? That will be determined by his ability to handle a clubhouse, develop the next wave of Giants and actually win games between the lines.

Kapler went 161-163 in two seasons in Philadelphia, finishing third and then fourth in the NL East. The Phillies improved by 14 games in his first season, but they tailed off down the stretch both years, and 2019 certainly was a disappointment given how much ownership invested in the team over the offseason, led by the additions of Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto.

The front office wanted to keep Kapler around, and Farhan Zaidi got rave reviews from his counterparts. Members of the Giants ownership group spoke to members of the group in Philadelphia and heard similar reviews, with the caveat that Kapler’s time in Philadelphia had simply run its course. Those who were around him for two years say Kapler did a good job of managing up, but sometimes lost his ability to fully connect with the clubhouse. There were questions about the way he handled the pitching staff, in particular.

The Giants digested all that and decided Kapler would take Bruce Bochy’s place, and during the interview process, the two managers spoke about how much better you can be the second time around, as Bochy was. You can learn from your mistakes.

So, what did Kapler learn in Philadelphia?

“The thing that I learned most, and it was pretty abrupt, was in my first year as a Phillies manager in 2018 I thought a lot about every little strategic edge, every little strategic advantage, and sometimes at the expense of some of that confidence that we’ve talked about,” Kapler said. “My biggest learn was: Sometimes a confident player is a better baseball player, and that outweighs the strategic advantage you get of calling just the right pitch at just the right time.

“I’ll use a pitcher analogy. If all of the information says that your curveball is your best pitch in a particular situation but that pitcher does not want to throw that pitch, you don’t force him to throw that pitch. You let him throw a different pitch with a lot of conviction, with a lot of energy, with a lot of confidence, and maybe that’s the best pitch in the moment. So probably my biggest learn is now to blend those two things.”

In an appearance on MLB Network a day later, Kapler gave a specific example. On Opening Day in 2018, he pulled starter Aaron Nola after just 68 pitches because he didn’t want him facing a lineup a third time. That has become a somewhat common strategy in recent years – but Nola had allowed just one run on three hits in 5 1/3 innings at the time. The Phillies bullpen gave up eight runs and the team lost, but it wasn’t the end result that stuck with Kapler.

“What we didn’t know is what an emotional impact that would have on the dugout. It had a pretty big, significant blow," Kapler said. "What I learned from that is learning how to trust Aaron Nola deeper into games and so we did that for the rest of the 2018 season and 2019 season as well, understanding that what we were seeing with our eyes was equally important to what we were seeing on paper.”

Nola wasn’t pulled that quickly again the rest of the year and went on to finish third in the Cy Young Award balloting. Kapler certainly will need a longer leash if Madison Bumgarner returns, but even for veterans like Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto, he will need to continue to adjust. The Giants learned that in 2019 when they tried early on to limit Samardzija’s innings and exposure to opposing lineups, but instead they found that he was one of their most reliable pitchers. By the end of the year, Samardzija’s workload more closely resembled previous seasons.

[RELATED: Kapler shares his regrets from Dodgers assault controversy]

Kapler said he plans on going on a “listening tour” to find out the preferences of Giants veterans. The Phillies did that after his first season, inviting team leaders to their Florida facility to discuss things like when they would stretch before games and how they wanted pre-game work to be handled.

“Every good clubhouse that I’ve ever been a part of … players have to be part of that raising the bar, they have to be part of that accountability that takes place,” Kapler said. “They have to be active participants in that conversation, and so those are some of the things that I’ll focus on.”

How Gabe Kapler plans to accentuate strengths of Giants' veteran lineup

How Gabe Kapler plans to accentuate strengths of Giants' veteran lineup

SAN FRANCISCO — The game of baseball has changed, but if you sit with most big leaguers, particularly those who have been around a few years, you’ll hear them talk of how important traditional statistics still are. 

Hitters often point to runs and RBI, not OPS+ or WAR, and pitchers still prefer ERA and, yes, wins, to xFIP or spin rates. During the final week of the season, Giants outfielder Kevin Pillar summed it up while discussing a low on-base percentage that may impact the decision to bring him back.

“(For) as long as this game has been played, scoring runs and driving in runs is an important statistic,” Pillar said. “Last time I checked, that's how you win games, if you score more runs than the other team."

Pillar likely will play for Gabe Kapler next year, and while Kapler’s introduction largely consisted of discussing off-field issues, he did give several examples of things he has learned as a manager and executive. Kapler didn’t mention many current Giants, but at one point, asked about the ballpark, he brought up Brandon Belt, which was interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, Belt is as likely as any longtime Giant to be traded before Kapler fills out his first lineup card. He has a limited no-trade clause, but it’ll be much more difficult for the new-look front office to deal other veterans if they truly want to shake it up. Belt still has plenty of fans in opposing front offices despite declining power numbers.

The second aspect was that Kapler was demonstrating how the new front office and staff might approach their evaluations of current Giants. 

"I've thought a lot about Brandon Belt and specifically what he brings -- how impressive it is to watch him take an at-bat, independent of the outcome of the at-bat. He tends to look over pitches and make really good swing-or-don't-swing decisions," Kapler said. "I know the power has dropped off a little bit but taking the things that he does very, very well and highlighting some of those things might lead to some more of that power production."

Kapler hit on what has always made Belt a polarizing player. His plate appearances are as controlled as anyone’s, and over the course of a game or series or season, there’s a lot of value in that. Every time Belt shakes his head at a pitch that was half an inch out of the zone, he’s adding to a starter’s workload and increasing his own odds of getting on base. 

Even in a disappointing season, Belt's .339 on-base percentage was the highest of any Giants regular. He ranked 15th in the National League by seeing 4.09 pitches per plate appearance, something Zaidi and Kapler's old clubs excel at. The Dodgers and Phillies ranked third and fourth in the NL, respectively, seeing 4.00 pitches per plate appearance. The Giants were ninth at 3.89. In 2018, Kapler's first year, the Phillies finished behind only the league-leading Dodgers, while the Giants ranked ninth in the league. 

[RELATED: Watch Kapler laugh at Belt for trying to bunt]

The ability to have consistently good plate appearances is something that was a focus throughout the organization in Zaidi's first year, and Kapler sure seems to be a fan. If the new staff can get some more power out of Belt, great, but if not, they still plan to focus on his strengths as a hitter. 

Kapler said that will be an emphasis with all of his players and the minor leaguers who come up. The Giants still lack in overall talent, but they believe there are ways to squeeze more juice out of this roster, regardless of what the ballpark's dimensions might do to hitters. 

"It's about instilling confidence in players for the things they do really well, and then reminding them how those positive steps forward can play in the environment that they play in specifically here in San Francisco," Kapler said.