The topic was unnecessary physical risk, and Madison Bumgarner and San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy gnawed on it in friendly conversation in Bochy's office at AT&T Park last June. Bochy leaned back in the black chair at his desk, hat off, and Bumgarner sat to his left, his legs stretched out. Bumgarner really liked the idea of joining the Home Run Derby, and, as he made his case to Bochy in his North Carolina drawl, the pitcher mentioned dryly that he had once been asked by the team to ride a horse in the ceremonies leading up to the Giants’ home opener in 2015.
If the steed had somehow managed to throw Bumgarner -- and good luck finding the horse that could launch baseball's Paul Bunyan, who weighs upwards of 250 pounds -- and the pitcher had landed on his left shoulder, some really good lawyer somewhere probably could have found that this violated his contract or grounds for a workers' compensation claim.
But Bumgarner wasn’t really serious in citing the horse thing as an inconsistency in the Giants’ handling of him; rather, he was just noting the smallest example of how the relationship between Bumgarner and the team has always contained some element of exposure to injury. Bumgarner did not utilize what might have been his greatest rhetorical weapon in his argument to participate in the Derby -- that time and again, he has taken the ball for the organization longer and more often than a lot of surgeons (and player agents) might’ve recommended.
It is probably because of that history that nobody with the Giants has raised the possibility of penalizing Bumgarner or filing some sort of grievance to recoup salary squandered during the time the pitcher will spend on the disabled list following his dirt bike accident in Colorado on Thursday. It would be incredibly shortsighted and stupid for club officials to pick a fight with Bumgarner over a few dollars, in light of how much value he has provided to the franchise. They all know his belief in his own invincibility and his willingness to plow past physical barriers (that would stop most others) is the reason why they all have 2014 championship rings.
During the 2014 Giants’ championship run, Bumgarner threw 52 2/3 innings, more than twice as many innings as any other pitcher who appeared in the playoffs and World Series that fall; he accounted for 32.9 percent of all innings the Giants pitched in the postseason. On Oct. 26, Bumgarner threw a 117-pitch complete game against the Kansas City Royals, driving San Francisco to within one victory of the title. And just three days later, Bumgarner told Bochy that he would be ready to pitch in relief in Game 7. As if there were any doubt.
Bochy made his plans for Game 7: He intended to bring Bumgarner into the game relatively early and have him work middle innings, as one of the very first options behind starter Tim Hudson. Others would be available to finish the game.
Bumgarner jogged in from the bullpen to work the bottom of the fifth inning and, as each scoreless frame passed, Bochy began to believe his ace would be able to finish the game. And so Bumgarner went back out for the ninth inning, getting the final outs. Of the 61 innings the Giants played in the World Series, Bumgarner threw 21. Throughout the postseason, he deflected any question from reporters about how he felt, insisting that he was fine.
It wasn’t until Bumgarner and Bochy embraced in the celebration that followed the last out, with both men soaked in champagne, that the left-hander finally acknowledged to his manager just how tired he was, after he had effectively hoisted the whole team on his back for a month.
Bumgarner led the National League in pitches thrown in 2016, with 3,571, amid a generation of starting pitchers that is being conditioned to believe that it’s OK to call it a day after working twice through a lineup. Only three pitchers have thrown more innings than Bumgarner in the past seven seasons: James Shields, David Price and Clayton Kershaw. He has always given the Giants more than they can reasonably expect -- and far more than he’s been worth to the team.
Before the 2012 season, Bumgarner and the Giants agreed to a five-year extension that has turned out to be extremely team-friendly: In 2014, the year in which Bumgarner had the greatest postseason performance in baseball history, he made $3.75 million. In 2016, he was the lowest-paid of the Giants’ five starting pitchers at $9.75 million.
Over the winter, the Giants and Bumgarner briefly discussed a contract extension, but the organization has deferred that talk to the future, partly because of luxury tax concerns. If San Francisco had agreed to a new deal for the left-hander, a deal that more accurately reflects his true value, they probably would have been over the tax threshold. So the Giants asked Bumgarner to table that conversation until later, and as it stands today, he is tied to the team through 2019 through options and is guaranteed a total of about $12 million.
Twelve million dollars. That's it. That's a little more than what Andrew Cashner will be paid by the Rangers this year. That’s about what Kershaw will be paid for April and May of this season. It’s about 1/16th of the money the Red Sox owe to Price.
The phone call Bochy got about Bumgarner’s accident must’ve been difficult, and nobody would’ve blamed the manager if he had cussed under his breath. Riding a dirt bike in the middle of a baseball season is a terrible decision, and a choice that almost no pitchers would’ve considered. Some pitchers, in fact, will avoid doing anything with their pitching arm, to eliminate the risk.
The Giants will get more information on Bumgarner’s injury in the days ahead, and although the team announced that the pitcher suffered a Grade 1 or 2 injury to his AC joint, the lowest end of the scale, nobody really knows for sure about any lasting impact from the injury.
Bochy’s former closer Trevor Hoffman had a mid-90s fastball until he played football on a beach after the players’ strike in 1994; Hoffman recalled that when he landed on his shoulder diving for the ball, it sounded like the air going out of the tire. Hoffman never had a great fastball again and was instead forced to adapt and develop a changeup. There will probably be a measure of relief within the Giants organization when Bumgarner gets back to slinging his fastballs past hitters and posting zeroes.
It does no good for anyone in the organization to chastise him now. The damage is done, to the 2017 season, and perhaps beyond. And, as Bochy told reporters, Bumgarner feels terrible about what happened. The Giants know him, and they know that Bumgarner’s belief in his own indestructibility -- which served all of them so well for years, never more than in 2014 -- is why he and Giants are in this situation.
Around the league
Cubs take unfair shots at Thames: What was particularly surprising about how Chicago Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio and pitcher John Lackey seemed to imply, in coded language, that the Brewers' Eric Thames might be benefiting from some help -- perhaps PEDs -- is that they both saw how teammate Jake Arrieta was unfairly targeted with unsubstantiated PED accusations in the past.
Thames says his plate discipline is the reason behind his tremendous success early this year, and there are statistics that support that. In 2011 and 2012, when Thames bounced from team to team, he swung at pitches out of the strike zone at a rate of about 36 percent. This season, so far: 20.8 percent. He’s swinging at strikes.
Fixing Heyward's swing: Some evaluators and pitchers believe that the root of Jason Heyward's past hitting problems are in the first movement of his left hand, when he reflexively turned his wrist inward, toward his body -- thereby locking up his movement and setting back his mechanics as he reacted to a pitch. Through his work over the winter and this spring, Heyward has seemingly eased that issue, and he is off to a good start, hitting .286, and the underlying numbers he has generated are better, as well. He has been more aggressive, swinging at a career-high 72.2 percent of pitches in the strike zone, with his swinging-strike percentage dropping to a career-low 5.6 percent and his contact rate at a career-best 88.5 percent.
Sunday Night Baseball: The Washington Nationals' Max Scherzer starts against the New York Mets' Zack Wheeler on Sunday Night Baseball (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). The pitching WAR leaders over the past six seasons:
The Nationals' Adam Eaton talked Saturday about how much he enjoys playing with Bryce Harper, although he wouldn’t want to trade places with him because of Harper's fame. Harper can’t really do anything or go anywhere, Eaton mentioned, without being besieged.
"He just wants to play baseball," Eaton said.
Harper’s plate discipline has dramatically improved since last season -- he is swinging at a career-low 24.2 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. And not surprisingly, he has a staggeringly low rate of swings-and-misses: 7.2 percent.
Yankees trying to 'stick it': New York Yankees catcher Austin Romine said through a smile recently that his goal is to perfectly frame and hold Aroldis Chapman's 103 mph fastball -- in catcher’s parlance, to "stick it." With pitches that fast, catchers do well to catch the ball and hang on, like a cowboy throwing a rope around a steer’s neck.
Chase Headley of the Yankees hit the ball to the opposite field just 20 percent of the time in 2015, and this year, he is using the whole field more, hitting the ball to the opposite field 34.9 percent of the time. Headley was batting .377 going into the Yankees' game Saturday.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
Call To The Legend: Ozzie Smith told stories from his career -- his conversation with Jack Buck after Smith’s “Go Crazy homer,” positioning against Tony Gwynn, his chat with Jeff Burroughs years after he robbed the Braves slugger with a barehanded play, and his conversations with fellow Hall of Famers.
Friday: Karl Ravech and Justin Havens play a game of buy, sell or hold about players who have started very well or very badly -- Jose Bautista, Ryan Zimmerman and others; Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star on Eric Hosmer and other Royals issues; Roch Kubatko of MASN on the surprising Orioles.
Thursday: Boog Sciambi on the idea of mic’ing up umpires and the proposition of ending games after 12 innings; Keith Law on Starling Marte’s value; and Tigers catcher James McCann on the evolution of Justin Verlander and the greatness of Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera.
Wednesday: Brewers first baseman Eric Thames on his mind-boggling start; Tyler Kepner of the New York Times and T.J. Quinn about the PED bust of Pirates center fielder Starling Marte; Tim Kurkjian on Mookie Betts' mind-boggling numbers.
Tuesday: Jayson Stark on Freddie Freeman and the other most underrated players in MLB; Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on the Pirates; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.
Monday: Jerry Crasnick on the struggle of the Cardinals; Laura Armstrong of the Toronto Star about the Blue Jays’ problems and a possible sell-off; and Todd Radom’s uniform and logo quiz and his No. 24 logo of all time.