Quarter pole MLB takeaways: Bumgarner vs. analytics, slumping Dodgers

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Madison Bumgarner wouldn’t bite last week when asked to look ahead to Monday’s start against the Los Angeles Dodgers, or about the National League West race, which is, well, something thanks to the surprising early season form of his former team, the San Francisco Giants.

The four-time all-star knew the Giants were doing well. The Dodgers? Not so much, according to “the last time (he) looked at the standings.”

Bumgarner is on a run of historic form heading into Monday’s start for the Arizona Diamondbacks, his first at Dodger Stadium since June 18, 2019. After posting an ERA of 11.20 in his first three outings, Bumgarner’s 0.47 WHIP in his last five is the lowest by a National League pitcher over a five-start span since Hall of Famer Pete Alexander had a 0.42 WHIP in 1915. Yes, that includes his seven-inning no-hitter. Bumgarner was hammered in his last start at Chavez Ravine – for the Giants on June 20, 2019 – and failed to make it out of the fourth inning. The left-hander hasn’t won at Dodger Stadium since Sept. 23, 2017, but he has cemented himself in the rivalry and has gone 15-14 (2.74) in 37 games (36 starts) against the Dodgers. His one start against L.A. last season, his first with the Diamondbacks, resulted in a 5-2 win at home.

Bumgarner’s desire to beat the Dodgers and his overall effectiveness against them were such that former Giants manager Bruce Bochy used to alter his rotation to ensure Bumgarner matched up against the Dodgers. Along the way, Bumgarner feuded and screamed and pointed at and challenged the likes of Yasiel Puig and Max Muncy. He also homered four times against Los Angeles when he was with the Giants, two of them coming off Clayton Kershaw. Yes, he hit one off current Blue Jays pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, too. Reputations aren’t always made through the uniform you wear.

The Dodgers’ uncertain performance through 40 games – they’re 9-16 after starting 13-2 – is one of the talking points as Major League teams have started to sneak past the quarter-pole. The NL West figured to be this year’s marquee division because of the presence of the defending World Series champion Dodgers and the rapidly ascending San Diego Padres. But other than the Dodgers’ issues – injuries, a team-wide two-week hitting slump, injuries and more injuries – the surprising Giants’ ability to turn back the clock has been the most intriguing development.  “We have a savvy group, here,”  said former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez. “All of them have been around for a while, and there’s a lot of playoff experience and guys who have been used to playing winning baseball.”

Buster Posey took last season off over COVID-19 concerns and has already hit more home runs than in 2018 or 2019, and has a 1.151 OPS in 103 plate appearances. He’s hit at a .500 clip and has at least one hit in 10 of his last 12 games.

True, there’s a whole bunch of Alex Wood going on with the Giants right now, but still.

Which brings us back to former Giants stalwart Bumgarner, who signed a five-year, $85-million contract with the Diamondbacks in 2019. Something clearly wasn’t working at the start of the season. Whatever that was has either been corrected. Or, is the correct word “forgotten?”

“I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus,” Bumgarner said after his previous start – one of those red-meat answers that makes reporters wish they had clubhouse access just like the pre-pandemic days. He was pressed for more details. Less worry about numbers and arm angles and such? “I can’t answer that without saying something I don’t want to,” he said, almost apologetically. “I’m always tinkering. I’ve settled in on something I like pretty good right now.” Eventually, he tipped his hand ever so slightly. He was asked if some of the changes stemmed from a less rigid game plan and more feel and intuition. “Definitely, that’s a big part of it,” he said.

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Diamondbacks pitching coach Matt Herges has, publicly at least, suggested he’s been in Bumgarner’s ear about spending less time worrying about the nuances of pitching and putting away all the technological toys at his disposal. This is, of course, the type of stuff that fails to get any light shined on it with restricted clubhouse access as a result of COVID-19 protocols because, let’s be clear, it takes an especially large set of cojones to name names on a Zoom call. But we all know how the game is managed and coached right now and how many different voices are in the ears of the players. Does an organization spend money on sci-fi bells and whistles? You had better be able to sell it to your big dogs. Spend money on something and call it R and D or high performance, and you either need to see results or at least spin it so it looks good. It will be that way until the final vestiges of old-school skepticism are removed from the game, which should allow for a less emotional view. We’ve seen all this before, folks.

Meanwhile, the Padres, who are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, swept the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend without the services of Fernando  Tatis, Jr., Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers. This division is going to be a meat-grinder.

FAIR OR FOUL

Some quarter-of-the-way ramblings …

FAIR is looking at the Dodgers without Corey Seager and A.J. Pollock and Cody Bellinger (goodness!), seeing them add Albert Pujols and then trading for Yoshimoto Tsutsugo, and reminding yourself that it’s been over two decades since Major League Baseball had a repeat World Series champion – that no team has accomplished that feat since the New York Yankees won in 1999 and 2000, part of a run of four World Series titles in five years. The Yankees made it back to the Fall Classic in 2001 only to be walked off by Arizona Diamondbacks Luis Gonzalez in Game 7.

FOUL is worrying too much about that $500 million (U.S.) grievance filed by the MLBPA over the shortened 2020 season. The players association claims its members lost salary because more games could have been played, and with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire on Dec. 1 there is concern the threat will further muddy negotiations. In reality, it is a bargaining chip put on the table by the MLBPA, something that could be withdrawn when negotiations begin on the nuts and bolts economic aspect of the new deal. Truth is? There’s not much the players have to take off the table, unless they are willing to touch the third rail of a salary cap.

FAIR is wondering whether New York Mets manager Luis Rojas, son of Felipe Alou, makes it past the next big swoon despite some inspired bullpen usage in a recent seven-game winning streak. The collaborative nature of front offices and in-game decision making have likely enhanced managerial stability but I can’t help but feel that Mets owner Steve Cohen will try to add a manager with a big personality to match that of some of his players.

FOUL is counting on Nate Pearson to play a leading role with the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays. Not saying it couldn’t happen, but I’ve been pretty consistent all along in the notion that as long as the Blue Jays view him as a starter it’s smart to take as a bonus whatever he’s going to give the team this season. The game doesn’t always wait for you; let’s see what a little head to head competition with Alek Manoah does for him.

FAIR is making a big deal out of the Blue Jays 9-2 record against teams in the NL East. The AL East is shaping up to tighter than anybody thought due to the Boston Red Sox and making hay early against teams in the pitching rich NL East – a division which doesn’t seem to have hit its stride yet – is an important notch on the belt for a team that has yet to play the Baltimore Orioles. Things look pretty decent for the local flannel.

FOUL is sleeping on the Houston Astros the way so many of us have been doing. They’ve won six in a row, Lance McCullers is holding the fort so far until Framber Valdez returns in a couple of weeks and Carlos Correa has shown signs of beginning a salary drive ahead of this winter’s free agency.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

THE END-GAME

Leave it to Sportsnet producer Chris Black to get us thinking today when he tweeted that the three-game series between the Blue Jays and Red Sox that starts on Tuesday will be just the fourth time since Sept., 1990, in which the teams have met this late in a season with both either in first or second place in the AL East. The Red Sox are making good, it seems, on projections and models that fancied their divisional chances more than the games chattering classes. If the weather holds we could be treated to the site of one of 2021’s major bounce-back stories, Victoria, B.C., native Nick Pivetta, holding first place in his hands when he starts for the Red Sox on Thursday. Pivetta is 7-0 (2.91) in 10 starts for the Red Sox since he was acquired at the trade deadline from the Philadelphia Phillies, and has limited opposing batters to a .195 average. Walks have been an issue – his 4.64 per nine innings pitched is second-worst in the Majors behind German Marquez of the Colorado Rockies – but he’s kept the damage to a minimum, becoming the first Red Sox pitcher since Matt Clement (2005) and – deep breath, here – Pedro Martinez (1998) to go undefeated over his first 10 starts. Pivetta has survived by being able to induce soft-ish contact, and while his fastball velocity is the same as it was with the Phillies – remember, the Phillies liked him so much they focussed on Pivetta when they traded Jonathan Papelbon to the Washington Nationals – the Red Sox have spent less time carping about spin rate and elevating the fastball, and are instead trusting him with his sinker.

Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 2-3 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan

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