Giants May recap: Best stretch for starting staff in years


Giants May recap: Best stretch for starting staff in years

When I recapped April, the conclusion was that Bruce Bochy should look back at the first month of the season and feel fine. "Not too good, but not too bad, either?" was the determination after one month of baseball. After two months, Bochy should feel better than just fine, because while some serious warts remain, the top of the rotation was even better in May than in April, and that success looks sustainable.

You'll go a long way if you have 60 percent of your rotation throwing the way the Giants' top three did in May, and you'll wrap up your division in early September if the other 40 percent join in, as Matt Cain and Jake Peavy did at times. Maybe we'll revisit this paragraph three months from now.

For now, we look back on the second month of even-year baseball. These are the highs and lows from May, a month that included a 13-run inning, a walk-off pop-up, a closer turning on his manager on the mound, a shortstop going off after the other team trolled him during BP, and much more.

If you're new here, I do this every month and you can find April's recap here. If you're not new here, you know the drill: This is The Month That Was ... 

1. May's Main Story: After the Giants took two of three from the Cubs, a reporter asked manager Bruce Bochy to explain it, as if the series was some sort of shock. “We’re a talented club, that’s how I would explain it,” Bochy said. “We’re really clicking in all facets of the game.” The Giants actually didn’t quite click on all facets in May, as their lineup quietly slumped through most of the month. But the defense was solid as always and the starting rotation was spectacular, leading a pitching staff that posted a 2.66 ERA. The Cubs (2.81) and Dodgers (3.18) were the only other teams under 3.40. So yeah, the Giants pitchers — mostly their starters — pretty much lapped most of the field. It led to a 21-8 record, the best in the Majors last month.

2. The Big Three: In his second month as a Giant, Jeff Samardzija posted a 2.08 ERA. Somehow, that wasn’t good enough for first or second in his own rotation. Here are the top three in the rotation and their NL rankings for May …

Innings: 2. Cueto (44 1/3) … 3. Samardzija (43 1/3) … 6. Bumgarner (42 2/3)
ERA: 2. Bumgarner (1.05) … 7. Cueto (2.03) … 8. Samardzija (2.08)
WHIP: 12. Bumgarner (0.96) … 13. Samardzija (0.97) … 18. Cueto (0.99)
Strikeouts: 6. Bumgarner (45) … 10. Samardzija (40) … 12. Cueto (39)

If you’re wondering who ended up No. 1, ahead of those red-hot Giants, the safe answer is always Clayton Kershaw, who is a robot who is somehow better than ever. Bumgarner was May Pitcher of the Month two years ago and probably would have won it again if not for Kershaw, who struck out 65, walked two and posted a 0.91 ERA in 49 2/3 innings.

3. Starting Point: With those three guys above leading the way, the starters posted a 2.47 ERA for the month. It was the first time since September, 1990 (2.04) that Giants starters posted an ERA under 2.50. The amazing thing about all these pitching stats is that the month included that May 5 game when the Giants allowed 13 runs in one inning, and that disaster came a day after Jake Peavy allowed seven earned in his first start of the month. From there, Giants starters were just about unbeatable. 

4. The Horse Returns, Briefly: That May 5 game cost Vin Mazzaro his bullpen spot, but Matt Cain bounced back with his best stretch in years. Even including that game, Cain still finished the month with a 3.38 ERA, his lowest in a five-start month since August of 2014.  The WHIP dropped from 1.59 in April to 1.28 in May, and the K/BB went from 2.33 to 4.25. After missing much of spring training with an injury, Cain finally got into a groove. 

“It looks like he’s back to who he is,” Bochy said. “He’s healthy. The confidence soared the last three starts and that’s good for us.”

Unfortunately, Cain’s May ended on the DL because of a hamstring strain. 

5. More Than a Gold Glove: A day after Brandon Crawford’s big homer in San Diego, we had a chat about driving in runs. Just like with the pitcher win, you’re not supposed to talk much about RBI anymore, but to position players it’s still a crucial stat, and for Crawford it’s a number he takes pride in. Crawford pointed out that his job hitting in front of the pitcher, above all, is often to find some way — any way — to get the run in. He did it as well as anyone in May, driving in 23 runs, the third-most in the National League (old friend Adam Duvall finished second with 24 RBI). 

Crawford’s 23 RBI were the most by a Giants shortstop since Rich Aurilia drove in 24 runs in August, 2001, and it’s not like Bochy often has him in the heart of the lineup. Crawford simply took advantage of just about every opportunity, going 14-for-29 with runners in scoring position, with three homers and 21 RBI in those 29 at-bats.

6. Lineup Lull: The first half of this monthly recap is pitching-heavy because that’s how the Giants won 21 games last month. On the flip side, the lineup, which looked like one of the top two or three in the National League in early April, went through a collective slump. The Giants ranked 10th in the National League in runs last month, scoring just 114 times after crossing the plate 124 times in four fewer games in April. They hit .252 as a team and had a .702 OPS, ranking in the bottom half of the NL in both categories. 

The biggest issue in recent weeks has been a lack of power, with the Giants hitting just 19 May homers and ranking 13th in the league in isolated power, ahead of only the rebuilding Braves and Phillies. Ordinarily, you could point to the ballpark. But the Giants played three games in Cincinnati, three in Denver and four in Phoenix, and their May slate included 20 games against pitching staffs that are in the bottom third of the NL in ERA. 

7. Play of the Month: This was an easy call. Joe Panik made one of the most creative throws you’ll ever see from a second baseman. “The only shot was to try to get rid of it and do a Kareem hook shot,” Panik said.  

8. Quotes of the Month: "They thought they were putting me to sleep. They were locking me in. They were locking me in and they didn't know it.” — Crawford, after homering on a day the Padres played boy band hits during BP to mess with the Giants. 

“It’s hard to believe lightning hit us twice here in about a week.” — Bochy, when his pitching staff gave up 13 runs in an inning a few days after allowing 12 in one inning. 

"Nice, huh? I'm gonna pawn it and see how much I can get.” — Johnny Cueto, joking around after he got his Royals World Series ring. 

"If we had a decent strength coach, I might be able to hit one in the water. ... But we've got Carl.” — Crawford, on a homer that came up just short of McCovey Cove.

“Geoff Head. He’s our sports scientist. He was in the weight room with me last night when I was lifting. It it was Carl, that might have been a double.” — Panik, continuing a theme, after a homer at Chase Field.

“It was a pleasant surprise. The roof, nature, the elements, sometimes they get you and sometimes they help you. You never know.” — Hunter Pence, on his 200th homer, which came minutes after the Diamondbacks opened their roof, which makes Chase Field play a little smaller. 

“Twinkle toes, you know …” — Brandon Belt, on his game-ending scoop at first. 

“These guys are horses, and we’ve been riding them pretty hard.” — Bochy, on his Big Three.

"I'll let you know tomorrow.” — Buster Posey, when asked how he was feeling after catching every inning of a 13-inning game.

“I think I can pitch to lefties. It shows the manager didn’t have faith in me.” — Santiago Casilla, after Bochy pulled him with one out remaining against the Diamondbacks.  

“He was leaving and I said, ‘Hey, Santiago, come back here … No, you can go.’” — Bochy, on that moment with Casilla. 

“We’re always ready, just in case. I’m an old pony now.” — Javier Lopez, on his lightning-fast warmup when Bochy decided to pull Casilla.  

“I usually hate it, to tell you the truth.” — Samardzija, when a Phoenix reporter asked him how he likes pitching there.

“It created a lot of drama. That’s a great feeling when it ends like that … If it goes in your favor.” — Bochy, on the win that was confirmed by replay. 

"Everybody on the team will be pulling for him. The staff, myself, the organization. We can't thank him enough for what he did for us.” — Bochy, after Tim Lincecum signed with the Angels.

“He’s big, bad Madison Bumgarner. Does it get old? No. That’s just him.” — Crawford, after Bumgarner feuded with Wil Myers.  

“Just sit there and enjoy your time. As long as we’re able to throw complete games, (the relievers) can sit and enjoy their time.” — Cueto, after following Bumgarner’s complete game with one of his own.  

“Boch is going to be in the Hall. I didn’t fight him too hard.” — Samardzija, after he was pulled three outs shy of a third straight complete game for the starting staff.  

"Probably middle school.” — Kelby Tomlinson, when asked the last time he regularly played outfield. 

“I was wanting him to auto-take there. I was hoping (Lester) would maybe throw a ball and turn it over to Span. Shows how much I know.” — Posey, when asked for his thoughts before Cain’s first hit of the season. 

“I really wasn’t planning on using him, to be honest. He was pretty adamant that he felt better and could give us swings.” — Bochy, on Pence’s walk-off pop-up on a day when the right fielder was out of the lineup with a sore hamstring. 

“It’s a lost art in a way. Everyone wants hitters to bang and put defense on the backburner.” — Samardzija, after two strong outfield throws helped him out. 

“His results have been remarkable, as advertised.” Pence, on the new guy, Cueto. 

“No. I’m about to just give it up and stick to what I’m doing. That seems to be working better. You can’t be mad at the results, that’s for sure.” — Bumgarner, on his continued fight to find his proper mechanics. (By the way, after two months, I think Bumgarner is just messing with reporters on this one.)

“We knew after the third or the fourth that we just needed to get him one run. It turns out he got it for himself.” — Matt Duffy, on Bumgarner’s dominant performance in a win over the Cubs.

“He’s special, and we’ve seen it over the years.” — Bochy, on that start. 

“I had to kind of do a little shimmy, a little karaoke. A couple of people told me that was like Candlestick right there.” — Denard Span, on a twirling ninth-inning catch at AT&T Park. 

“Nothing, I just wanted to get mad for a minute.” — Bumgarner, when asked what led to Bumgarner vs. Myers. 

9. Social Media Highlights of the Month: Cueto showing the Rockies the proper way to give yourself up at first (after a Rockies player nearly took him out at the knees) was an enjoyable moment. MLB had a great clip of Cueto cheating on a breaking ball. Ahmed Fareed caught Posey taking his shin guard off after a walk-off walk. Also, shoutout to Jessica Osich for going with it when a FOX announcer screwed up her husband's name.

The funniest moment of May might have been Panik experiencing all the emotions when the umpire accidentally signaled safe instead of out on that game-ending double play that was reviewed, but my favorite "social media moment" came courtesy of Belt, who perfectly handled a hater.

10. The Month That Will Be: You are familiar with the phrase June Swoon, no? If you weren’t before Wednesday’s brutal injury/walk-off-loss, you certainly are now. In 2013 the Giants went 10-17 in June. The next year it was 10-16. Last year it was a bit better, but still a losing month: 12-14. This June is off to a painful start, and it certainly doesn’t get any easier. The Giants play at the Cardinals, Pirates and Rays in June and host the Red Sox and Dodgers. There are a couple of easier series mixed in here and there, but that’s still a tough stretch, and the month ends with four straight against the A’s, who always play the Giants tough regardless of what kind of team they have. The good news? The Giants took a 4 1/2 game lead into June and they've extended that by one thanks to Bumgarner. The bad news? They’ll try to hold that lead with Pence likely lost the whole month and Angel Pagan, Sergio Romo and Cain still on the DL.

Why Giants mentioned Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole in explaining new staff


Why Giants mentioned Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole in explaining new staff

SAN DIEGO -- When you hear the words "player development," you think of 19-year-olds learning on back fields at the minor league facility in Scottsdale, or a roving hitting instructor spending time making swing changes with prospects Joey Bart or Heliot Ramos, or a coach teaching a Logan Webb or Sean Hjelle a new pitch. 

But when Giants manager Gabe Kapler talks about player development -- and he does so often -- he's also thinking about guys like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. Kapler said this week that there's "not much I feel more strongly about" than players continuing to develop at the big league level, and that played a huge role as he hired a young staff that will ideally bring an innovative approach.

"There's evidence all over the place in Major League Baseball about players who reinvent themselves or take major steps forward and reestablish their value at the Major League level," Kapler said this week at the MLB Winter Meetings. 

The Giants are building for the future, but they also believe they can squeeze much more out of the existing core. And when Bart and Ramos are veterans one day, they want those guys to continue to find new levels, too. As he talked about player development at the big league level, Kapler pivoted and told a story about Bryce Harper, who already had more than 900 games under his belt when he joined Kapler's Phillies last season. 

"Bryce Harper, I think, was influenced heavily by Paco Figueroa, our first base and outfield coach, mostly just because Paco was not concerned about approaching Bryce," Kapler said. "He recognized that Bryce Harper wanted to be coached and wanted to develop, and he was willing to approach. Bryce recognized that so much so that at the end of the year when we were doing our exit meetings, Bryce recognized that Paco had been influential in his career and helped him become a better outfielder and baserunner."

Harper was worth negative-26 Defensive Runs Saved in 2018 according to Fangraphs -- just about the only blemish on his résumé as a free agent -- but was plus-9 in his first season in Philadelphia, a massive improvement. The Giants were actually intent on going that path long before Kapler arrived. When they offered Harper $310 million last year, their existing analytics and coaching staffs had ideas about how they could get more out of Harper defensively with positioning changes. 

Harper's not the only example the Giants will use to sell their vision to veteran players. General manager Scott Harris mentioned Gerrit Cole as another who found new ways to add to his game. 

"Look at the strides he made the last two seasons and now he signed the largest free-agent contract (for a pitcher) in the history of the game," Harris said. "You look at the strides he made when he first burst onto the scene for the Pirates and what he did in Houston. Their coaching staff was largely responsible for the development he saw at the Major League level."

The Astros' staff has gotten a lot of credit for turning Cole into the pitcher the Pirates were expecting when they took him first overall in 2011. Cole had a 3.50 ERA in Pittsburgh and a 2.68 ERA in Houston, where his strikeout rate jumped from 8.4 per nine innings to 13.1. He was worth 15.4 WAR in five seasons with the Pirates and then skyrocketed to 13.4 in two seasons in Houston. 

[RELATED: Kershaw believes Dodgers signing MadBum would be 'great']

Kapler and Harris are not walking into an organization that has a Harper or Cole, but they believe their new coaching staff and player-development methods can get the most out of existing talent. That'll be a focus in spring training, and the conversations have already begun with some veterans. Kapler, who mentioned J.D. Martinez as another example of late-career adjustments, said he has spoken to Posey multiple times since getting hired. 

"I think that a lot of established successful Major Leaguers want to get better and sometimes they don't know how," Kapler said. "In some cases, it's because coaches haven't approached them because they don't want to break something that's working well, but I think those days are gone and I think players crave having coaches approach them and ask them to make changes."

Dodgers signing Madison Bumgarner would be 'great,' Clayton Kershaw says

Dodgers signing Madison Bumgarner would be 'great,' Clayton Kershaw says

Despite what Giants fans want to believe, Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw are friends.

Before many Giants-Dodgers games over the years, they could be seen talking on the field, in plain sight of everyone.

So it should come as any surprise that Kershaw would love to have Bumgarner on the Dodgers.

"I love Bum," Kershaw said Friday at a Dodgers holiday event according to Dodgers Nation. "If we signed him, that’d be great."

NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic reported Thursday, citing sources, that the Dodgers and Bumgarner have a mutual interest in a deal.

Bumgarner in Dodger blue is the worst nightmare for Giants fans. But it's a real possibility with Los Angeles missing out on top free agent Gerrit Cole.

[RELATED: Padres reportedly looking at Bumgarner]

Kershaw hasn't been able to bring a World Series to Los Angeles on his own, so of course, he would love for a postseason hero to come help him end the Dodgers' title drought.