Can Giants' Madison Bumgarner Avoid World Series Hangover?
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Madison Bumgarner sits at the intersection of baseball's old and new schools.
Last year the Giants rookie phenom came to the big leagues and pitched beautifully. And he pitched. And pitched. And pitched. He pitched more innings, over more weeks, than he'd ever pitched before.
Modern baseball statistical analysis is full of evidence that young pitchers who see dramatic increases in their workload are headed for trouble, either injury or ineffectiveness.
The Giants were well aware of the numbers. But they also let their eyes guide them. Bumgarner looked fine, said he felt fine, and he pitched well. Besides, they were trying to get to the playoffs and win a World Series -- which they did -- and there were no better alternatives.
Now, as they begin The Year After, Giants manager Bruce Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti are again faced with a delicate issue surrounding their prized 21-year-old. Do they hold him back, or let him go?
"Nobody has a perfect answer," Righetti said. "If we're competitive and he's healthy, is he not going to pitch? You can't do that. Boch and I are going to watch him. Everytime he looks like he's fatigued, we'll take him out."
Essentially, they'll be making decisions the way they did back in the old days: by watching him pitch. They won't religiously be sticking to any formulas that dictate how much is too much. The Giants will start the season with Bumgarner in the No. 5 spot so they have the opportunity to skip him if they deem necessary, but the plan is to let him and the other four starters pitch every fifth game.
"I don't think anything about it," Bumgarner said. "I'll be fine this year. People always have to have something to talk about. I felt better at the end of last season. Honestly, I never had a moment where I felt tired or where it was a long year, a lot of innings. I felt great."
Bumgarner did pitch his best game on Oct. 31, in Game 4 of the World Series, so that is certainly evidence that there was nothing amiss. Those final eight innings of the year pushed his total to 212 2/3. He had thrown 156 2/3 innings in the minors, including the playoffs, in 2008 and 141 1/3 in 2009.
That represents a jump that will send up a huge red flag in the statistical analysis community.
By now the so-called Verducci Effect is well known. Noted Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci began studying the impact of workloads on young pitchers a few years ago. His research showed that pitchers under 25 who pitch at least 30 more innings than their previous career high are at risk for injury or decline. Since Verducci began publishing his annual list of pitchers to watch, it's become an industry standard to monitor those numbers. Some teams believe in using a percentage increase as a guideline, rather than a raw number.
Either way, Bumgarner was well into the danger zone. His innings increased by nearly 50 percent from 2009 to 2010.
Normally, it would be considered professional malpractice to subject a pitcher to that type of workload, but circumstances surrounding Bumgarner made it practically unavoidable.
"When are you going to (sit him)?" Righetti said. "We were trying to win the World Series, and we're going to use our best guys."
Matt Cain, 26, who had been through a more gradual increase in his workload during his first years in the big leagues, said he thinks there is a place for limiting young pitchers, but it depends on the pitcher.
"It depends on how the guy takes care of himself," Cain said. "Bum takes care of himself good. He gets his running in, gets his workouts in, takes care of his shoulders. He's not just going through the motions being a 21-year-old and trying to get away with it. He takes care of himself better than I did at that age."
Ironically, Bumgarner's conditioning was one of the issues a year ago. The Giants believe that the reason Bumgarner's velocity took a mysterious dip from the middle of 2009 to the beginning of 2010 was that he wasn't in shape. Bumgarner insists it was just mechanics. He said he had trouble identifying the problem in his delivery and then it took him a while to get it fixed. Righetti said it's probably a combination of the two.
"If the body is in shape, but the arm isn't, the timing is off," Righetti said, adding that Bumgarner then opened up his delivery even more to try to compensate for the velocity he lost.
Bumgarner said he didn't feel like he was all the way back to where he needed to be until August. The fact that his mechanics are now more sound than a year ago is what encourages Bumgarner that his body can handle the work.
Before he threw his first exhibition pitch of the spring, Bumgarner said he was ready for another long year: "This is probably the best I felt this time of year. Ever."