Smashing cars, clubbing homers: Giants love watching Madison Bumgarner at the plate
KANSAS CITY – Randy Gomez is the maintenance director at AT&T Park. He parks his Dodge Charger in the private lot just beyond the oversized Coke bottle in left field.
When he returned to his car last Thursday, he found a mess of shattered glass. And he had Madison Bumgarner to thank for it.
“I’ve got the ball he hit, and it has a couple big scuff marks on it,” said Gomez, whose car is in the shop to install a new sunroof. “I wouldn’t ask him to pay the bill. But if he could autograph the ball, hey, that would be pretty cool.”
Bumgarner’s legend on the mound is well documented. His next assignment on Wednesday will come in an interleague game against the Kansas City Royals, as he ascends the Kauffman Stadium mound for the first time since his historic, five-inning relief appearance in Game 7 of the World Series.
Bumgarner’s legend at the plate continues to build.
He added to his lumberjack lore April 2, when he became the first pitcher in baseball history to hit two home runs on opening day. He connected against Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke and then left-handed reliever Andrew Chafin.
He uses a 34 ½-inch, 33 ½-ounce bat that is the biggest on the team, and was the model originally made for former masher Adam Dunn. He once appeared as a pinch hitter against Aroldis Chapman and fouled off a 100 mph heater before becoming the only pitcher ever to draw a walk against the flamethrowing reliever.
Last year, he mused about participating in the All-Star Home Run Derby. Before the talk could turn serious, the players’ union squashed it. And now?
“I probably won’t do it,” he said. “Not after that debacle last year. I didn’t even ask to do it. I got thrown in the conversation, and then you’re just listening to everyone run their mouth off. So forget that.”
Bumgarner’s trips to the plate have a way of generating buzz.
In an interleague game at Oakland last season, when the Giants had a designated hitter and Bumgarner on the mound, Manager Bruce Bochy decided he would rather see his left-handed pitcher grab a bat instead of his limited bench choices. It was the first time since 1976 (Ken Brett, Chicago White Sox) that a major league manager intentionally gave up the DH to let his starting pitcher take a turn in the lineup. (He probably won’t hit for himself in Kansas City, though.)
There have been some talented hitting pitchers in baseball history. But it’s hard to find one who matches Bumgarner’s power at the plate with his dominance on the mound.
Babe Ruth comes to mind…
“That’s what we were calling him,” said Buster Posey, after Bumgarner hit his two home runs at Arizona. “We were calling him the Great Bambino in the dugout.”
“I mean, for us in the dugout, we’re just shaking our heads because it’s not supposed to be that easy,” Posey said. “He makes it look easy, but there’s a method to his madness. He works at it. He takes it extremely seriously and the results are proof of that.”
With his two homers on opening day, Bumgarner tied and passed the San Francisco Giants’franchise record for career home runs by a pitcher. Bumgarner has hit 16 of them – all but two since 2014, when he became a legitimate threat at the plate.
Ah, yes. That’s the part his legend tends to obscure. Just three years ago, Bumgarner wasn’t a very good hitter at all.
He might have won his North Carolina high school state title with a walk-off home run, but he did not arrive in the major leagues ready to be competitive at the plate. It’s something he has worked hard to refine.
“I’ve seen it a long time ago: our at-bats sometimes can be the difference in the game,” said Bumgarner, after finishing up a round of (you guessed it) batting practice. “Maybe not a lot of times, but hell, even if it’s just once a year, you’ve seen the season come down to one game.
“You don’t have to put that much work into it to get better at it. We take batting practice anyway. Why not take it serious?”
From 2009-13, Bumgarner hit .138 with two home runs in 224 at-bats. He was downright terrible in 2013, hitting .107 with no extra-base hits and 30 strikeouts in 56 at-bats.
But over the last three seasons, plus three games in 2017, Bumgarner has a .229 average and a .449 slugging percentage. The Mets’ Noah Syndergaard (.355) is a distant second with the next best slugging percentage by a pitcher over that span. The Cubs’ Jake Arrieta (.314) ranks next.
Bumgarner’s slugging percentage since 2014 is even higher than that of Brandon Crawford (.431), who won a Silver Slugger award in 2015. Bumgarner won his own pair of Silver Sluggers before Arrieta interrupted his reign last year, but he’s already off to a great start on seizing the award once again.
Bumgarner wants to do more than hit home runs, though.
“I mean, I like hitting home runs,” Bumgarner said. “Obviously, anybody does, but I’m trying at least to hit it hard. I’m trying to catch it out front. But some days, I don’t know if you watched me in the cage today, but I hit a lot to center and to right-center. I did that because I wanted to see the pitch a little deeper for a day or two. That helps get you back on track. That’s really it. You take however you’re feeling and use BP to practice and adjust whatever you feel you need to adjust to.”
Bumgarner said that it took him a few years to realize that consistent mechanics in the batter’s box are just as important as consistent mechanics on the mound.
“I think it’s more approach than anything,” he said. “Before 2014, it seems I would do something different every time: have a different approach, have a different stance. Whatever the case may be. Then I figured out an approach I liked and wanted to stick with. It works pretty good for me.
“Pride gets in the way a lot of times. You hit two home runs on opening day, and you get to thinking you’ll hit home runs every time.”
Giants hitting coach Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens said Bumgarner’s biggest adjustment was to tone down his leg kick.
“It’s a timing mechanism, and that is hard to maintain when you’re not playing every day,” Meulens said. “He’s still very aggressive. But he’s paying more attention to starting sooner and slower so he can get his foot down and recognize the pitch, and get after it.
“You’ve got to understand, he’s often going every fifth day against the best pitcher on the other team. A lot of times we’re scrambling to score runs. So his at-bat really can make the difference in a game.”
While he’s swinging for the fences, opponents are throwing him more breaking pitches. He has come to expect curves and sliders when he’s ahead in the count, too. So Bumgarner is trying to stay a step ahead.
“He’s better swinging at breaking balls this year already,” Meulens said. “He’s fouled a couple of good ones off, he’s taken a couple that are balls. He’s recognizing them better because his head is still. He’s slower and he’s more compact. It should give him better results.”
Bumgarner also takes batting practice indoors on a special machine that throws curveballs. If he knows it’s coming, he can hit them, too.
“I don’t know what hitters do, but for me, being a pitcher, I usually have to get a pitch and guess right,” Bumgarner said. “For the most part, you’ve got to be looking for a pitch and get it, and then just don’t miss it.”
He didn’t miss those two pitches on opening day. And a fan in the stands with a zoom lens caught his swing at the perfect moment: in the batter’s box, head down, a perfect line from his front foot through his hip, his arms fully extended and his black maple bat catching the baseball out in front.
Perfect form for a power hitter. Unbelievable form for a starting pitcher.
When the fan reached out to Bumgarner with the photo, he had a bunch printed up and used a silver-tipped pen to autograph them for his teammates.
Bumgarner knows how to treat his fans. And he knows he has a bunch of them within his own clubhouse.
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