The ERA Is High, But Is Bumgarner Really Off to a Slow Start?

[CSNBY] The ERA is high, but is Bumgarner really off to a slow start?
Alex Pavlovic

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. 

Add it all up and the start has been slower than everyone hoped 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."

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