Programming note: For complete Giants coverage from spring training watch Raising Arizona tonight at 8:30 on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It’s hard for Madison Bumgarner to think of himself as a staff leader, even if he’s getting the ball on Opening Day.
He’s the youngest member of the starting five, after all.
But the 24-year-old lefty has logged enough big league time and gained enough wisdom to become a resource for less established pitchers in the Giants clubhouse. And that’s a role Bumgarner is happy to embrace.
“He told you he’s still throwing it?” said Bumgarner, told that lefty Mike Kickham is experimenting with a cutter. “He asked me about it last season so I told him everything I could tell him. I thought he canned it. That’s pretty cool to know he’s still throwing it. I hope it's a good pitch for him.”
Bumgarner learned the cutter from a Triple-A teammate, Horacio Ramirez, and the pitch came so naturally to him that he threw it in a game the next day. It’s become one of the major reasons Bumgarner has gotten better each season, reducing his opponent’s average from .272 to .260 to .234 to .203 over the last four years.
Need to throw a 2-0 pitch when the whole ballpark knows you have to lay one in there? Throw a cutter. Need to jam a left-handed hitter? Throw a cutter. Have trouble throwing a sinker from your three-quarters arm slot? A well-executed cutter might get you those ground balls.
Just want to keep the pitch off the barrel?
“I’ve learned to play with the break and the speed of it,” said Bumgarner, “to make it do different things.”
Bumgarner kept on experimenting last season, even when he ranked fifth in the NL with a 2.77 ERA. In Ryan Vogelsong's view, that determination is what allowed Bumgarner to get better from one year to the next. He doesn’t wait until he’s scratching his head after a bad start to start figuring out ways to improve.
That’s why Vogelsong won’t be surprised if Bumgarner, despite coming off his best season, is even tougher on hitters this year.
“He tinkers a lot and he wants to get better, and do things differently to get better, and that’s showing up,” Vogelsong said. “I don’t think you put limits on him. I think he’ll do whatever he wants to do, and that’s exciting.”
Vogelsong paused, then offered a wry grin.
“It’s definitely something I would’ve liked to have when I was 24,” he said.
Bumgarner and Vogelsong both looked sharp while pitching three innings apiece in a 3-2 exhibition win over the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields on Tuesday. Bumgarner held the Rockies to two hits and struck out one; Vogelsong wasn’t happy about the 0-2 RBI double he gave up to Ryan Wheeler, but it was the only run he allowed in three innings and he didn’t walk a batter, either.
In fact, adding up Bumgarner, Vogelsong, Tim Hudson and Tim Lincecum, the Giants’ projected rotation has issued just one walk (and one run) in 14 innings this spring. (Matt Cain’s first start was cancelled due to a tarp malfunction and he’ll debut on Wednesday.)
“I’d take one walk by myself,” Vogelsong said. “So for all of us to have that kind of command right now … you’ve got to be excited about the way everybody is throwing.”
Bumgarner isn’t throwing the way he would on March 31, when he gets the ball in the opener at Arizona. He’s throwing fastballs in different areas in different counts. He’s a tinkerer, don’t forget.
Maybe he’s not Greg Maddux, whose legend extended to using exhibition games to intentionally plant pitch sequence ideas and false confidence in his opponent’s head. But Bumgarner definitely has shown an ability to stay one step ahead of hitters.
Remember when Yasiel Puig reached out for a two-strike changeup away, depositing it over the short wall in the right field corner at Dodger Stadium last season? Afterward, Bumgarner told reporters the home run “didn’t make much sense.”
Then next time he faced Puig, he kept pounding him inside and retired him three times – one a strikeout, one a broken-bat pop-up. And if Puig starts to cheat in next time, it's a good bet Bumgarner will be a step ahead again.
Who knows? Maybe someday Kickham can use his cutter to a similar effect. If so, he'll have Bumgarner to thank. A staff leader’s value extends far beyond himself when he helps younger pitchers.
Although in this case, you can’t really say that Bumgarner is mentoring younger pitchers. Look it up if you don't believe me: Kickham is actually a year older.