Madison Bumgarner's ERA is high, but is he really off to a slow start?


Madison Bumgarner's ERA is high, but is he really off to a slow start?

SAN FRANCISCO -- The numbers are everywhere now. You can't turn on a broadcast without seeing colored charts explaining why a hitter is being shifted. When they walk into the cage, hitters are presented with data showing the ideal launch angle. When pitchers sit down to prepare for a series, they're given a piece of paper detailing the tendencies of every hitter they might face. 

Madison Bumgarner is as old school as it gets when matching up, preferring to study the placement of a hitter's hands or how far he's standing from the plate, but even he admitted this week that the changes have seeped into his preparation.

The question posed to Bumgarner was simple: "Did you know your spin rates are up across the board by a significant amount?"

Bumgarner nodded. The reason, it turns out, is simple, too. 

"Grip strength," he quickly replied. 

Bumgarner felt he never got his grip strength back last season after fracturing his hand in his final spring appearance. He talked to players -- pitchers and hitters -- who had suffered a similar injury, and all told him it would be winter before the strength in his fingers fully returned. 

Bumgarner wasn't waiting around. Looking back, the Giants feel Bumgarner twice rushed back from injuries, impacting his ability to be his old self in 2017 and 2018. 

There's another element here, too. The Giants set up a Rapsodo machine when Bumgarner was rehabbing last year and he took some interest in the spin rate numbers, mostly to see if they matched what he felt when he thought he made a perfect pitch. They did. 

The result is that Bumgarner, back at full strength and with a better idea of what works, is hitting new heights in an area the game didn't pay attention to when he broke into the big leagues. The spin rate on his sinker is up more than 300 rpms from last year and is in the 90th percentile for pitchers, according to Baseball Savant. His signature cutter, which spun at 2,192 rpms two years ago and 2,129 in 2018, is up to 2,453. His curveball is about 250 rpms better than his previous high.

Then there's the stat we've long associated with pitchers. Bumgarner traditionally has picked up velocity as the season goes on, and at 90.9 mph, his average fastball velocity in April isn't far off the 91.2 he put up in the first month of 2016, his last healthy season. 

All of this is to say that even though Bumgarner, now 29, carries a 4.30 ERA into May, the player and the team are not worried.

"The velocity and the spin rates and some of the effectiveness of his pitches and pitch characteristics have been up from last year, and I think that's really encouraging," president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said. 

Manager Bruce Bochy said he sees a big difference from last season.

"Last year he threw the ball so well in spring training and it took him a while to get back on track," Bochy said. "This year, I think he has been really good with his stuff, velocity, the sharpness of his pitches. He's just a touch off with his command."

That has ruined three of Bumgarner's first six starts. He has talked of not quite having the right "feel" for his pitches yet, but like with his velocity, that sometimes takes time. Bumgarner's 3.45 career ERA in April is the highest of any month, and nearly a full run higher than his career ERA (2.67) in May. 

Bumgarner also has dealt with some bad luck. According to Inside-Edge, opposing hitters are batting .579 off him when they put a ball in play with runners in scoring position, the worst mark in the league. The league average BABIP in those situations is .314. 

[RELATED: These advance stats show big picture of Giants' struggles]

Add it all up and the start has been slower than everyone hoped for in such an important year for the player and team, but Bumgarner is still hitting one of his main goals. He is fourth in the National League with 37 2/3 innings. But interestingly, this is one area where the Giants don't want to see the Bumgarner of old. They have talked internally of pulling back on their workhorse, as difficult as that might be.  

"Maybe some of that is us being more aggressive getting to the bullpen and not putting too much of a burden on him," Zaidi said. "I think maybe taking some of that pressure off of him and having him feel like if he goes six quality innings, that's pretty good with the bullpen we have, rather than pushing him to seven-plus, I think that will help him as well."

Why Giants brought up Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole when explaining new staff


Why Giants brought up Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole when 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.