Pence: 'We're pushing to finish strong'
Opponents batted .272 against Madison Bumgarner in 2010, .260 in ’11 and .234 last year. (AP IMAGES)
Madison Bumgarner has made 18 consecutive starts in which he’s allowed three earned runs or fewer. (AP IMAGES)
LOS ANGELES – Madison Bumgarner is putting together a front-to-back solid season for the first time in his career. Ask any scout who’s seen him a few times and they’ll tell you how he’s doing it.
The pitch has become a prime weapon for the Giants’ 24-year-old left-hander. It leads to ground balls and broken bats. It allows him to collect efficient outs and pitch deeper into games. And it complements his harder fastball, his changeup and his curve.
It’s propelled him from one of the game’s brighter young pitchers to one of its full-fledged elites.
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“It’s the only pitch I picked up pretty much just like that,” said Bumgarner, who learned the cutter one day in Triple-A Fresno in 2010. “I started throwing it one day and I used it in a game the very next day. That’s rare for me. It’s the only pitch I picked up just like that.”
Bumgarner is making it look easy now. He’s fifth in the NL in ERA (2.83) and WHIP (1.03). He’s made 18 consecutive starts in which he’s allowed three earned runs or fewer – the longest run by a Giants starter within a single season since Ed Whitson in 1980.
And his .204 opponent’s average is tied for third in the NL, behind only brilliant Miami rookie Jose Fernandez and Cy Young Award shoe-in Clayton Kershaw.
By some measures, Bumgarner’s season has been comparable to or even better than either of Tim Lincecum’s Cy Young campaigns in 2008-09. Bumgarner’s WHIP would be the lowest by a Giants starter since Jason Schmidt in 2003 (0.95) and the .204 opponent’s average would be the lowest since Schmidt (.204) in ’03.
Not even Lincecum posted numbers that low in his Cy Young years.
Bumgarner has become less hittable every year. Opponents batted .272 against him in 2010, .260 in ’11 and .234 last year. He didn’t set out for that to happen, but it’s a byproduct of the one goal he set for himself before this season began.
“It’s a change to my mental approach I really wanted to make,” said Bumgarner, one day after he beat Kershaw at Dodger Stadium. “The one thing I said to myself this year was, `I’m not going to give in to hitters.’ I wanted to bad not to walk anybody that I threw too many pitches over the plate and I’d give up too many hits.
“This year the walks are up but I’m making pitches constantly in an at-bat. It can be 0-2 or 3-0. I’m not giving in.”
Remember that start against the Minnesota Twins in June of 2011, when Bumgarner retired one batter and gave up eight hits in the first inning? Those rat-tat-tat starts just aren’t happening anymore. Bumgarner’s season high for hits allowed this season is eight, and both of those starts came during a mini-funk in May.
He’s started a season 1-6 and he’s melted down the stretch. This year, he’s been very, very good from start to finish.
Bumgarner said maybe some of Ryan Vogelsong’s toughness rubbed off on him.
“It’s learning how to pitch to guys and learning about myself,” Bumgarner said. “And it’s feeling strong all year, which means sticking to my workout program. Not being lazy. Doing the work.”
In a season when two World Series runs in three seasons seemed to catch up to the rest of the rotation, Bumgarner has seemed minimally effected – and he was the one pitcher who looked the most worn down in the second half last year. Remember when he was pulled from the rotation in the NLCS, only to rebound with a Game 2 victory in the World Series?
Bumgarner’s cutter was a huge pitch in that start against the Detroit Tigers, too. And after stepping back to work on shortening his delivery with pitching coach Dave Righetti, he found the right arm slot to throw it again.
But who taught him the cutter? Was it Righetti, or bullpen coach Mark Gardner?
Actually, it’s a left-handed pitcher who split this season between the independent Lancaster Barnstormers and the Tigres de Quintana Roo in the Mexican League.
“Do you remember Horacio Ramirez?” Bumgarner said. “Played with the Braves. itched with us for a year at Fresno.”
Ramirez never pitched for the Giants and he made just a dozen relief appearances for the Angels in 2011 before heading to independent ball. He doesn’t have a World Series ring. But Bumgarner owes some of the sparkle to his journeyman teammate. (Ramirez, as it turns out, is also distantly related to Giants reliever Sergio Romo.)
“We were just in the outfield one day and he started showing it to me,” Bumgarner said. “I threw it with his grip, and then Pat Rice (Fresno’s pitching coach) showed me another grip that I ended up liking better. Before, I’d throw a fastball and it would cut on accident sometimes. Maybe that’s why I picked it up so fast.
“I feel I can control it pretty good. I can throw it to a lot of different spots for a lot of different outcomes. And from my arm slot, it moves quite a bit. Everybody tells me they can’t pick up the spin on it.”
Bumgarner was a pure fastball pitcher in high school – and his heater was so good that vice president Dick Tidrow made him the 10th overall pick based on watching him just once.
But surely Bumgarner had picked up a few tricks in 2008, when he was 15-3 with a 1.46 ERA as an 18-year-old for Low-A Augusta, right? Or the following year, when he was 12-2 with a 1.85 ERA while splitting the season between Single-A San Jose and Double-A Connecticut?
“Not really,” he said, with a laugh. “Fastball. That’s all I had. Nothing else. My breaking ball was terrible.”
So how was he untouchable for those two years?
“I have no idea how that happened,” he said. “Crazy.”
That’s how good his fastball was, and how deceptive his delivery was to hitters. When he got to Triple-A, he realized he needed something more than a slurvy offspeed pitch that he couldn’t throw for strikes.
If he tried to pitch now with what he had then?
“Well, I think it’d be pretty tough,” he said, smiling. “I’ve worked to make my changeup better. I’ve worked to make my curve better. Now I feel comfortable with all four pitches.”
The Giants can take comfort in the fact that Bumgarner is under wraps for six more seasons, counting the two club options the Giants hold on him. It’ll be a long time before the big left-hander finds himself in a contract drive.
Not that he needs the motivation.
“I’m still trying to get better,” Bumgarner said. “I don’t ever want to be complacent.”