LOS ANGELES -- This season has been a disaster for the San Francisco Giants, and if a bounce back is in the cards for 2018, it has to be rooted in improved performance from some of their more established players. Brandon Crawford, their long-term shortstop, has an OPS under .700, and he has to hit better. First baseman Brandon Belt mans a power position and will enjoy a huge increase in salary -- from $8.8 million this year to $17.2 million in 2018 and each of the three years that follow -- and the Giants desperately need more production from him.
Then there’s Madison Bumgarner, whose motorbike accident cost him three months of this season. The ace threw more than 200 innings in each of the past six seasons but has just 45 ⅓ so far in 2017. He and the Giants are still learning more about what he is, and what he is capable of, in the aftermath of his tumble off the bike. San Francisco juggled its rotation and Bumgarner will pitch against the Dodgers on Sunday Night Baseball.
In three starts since being reactivated from the disabled list, Bumgarner’s results are good, if unspectacular: A 3.93 ERA in 18 ⅓ innings with four walks and 14 strikeouts. He has held opposing hitters to a .225 batting average while allowing four homers.
Bumgarner’s velocity has also been down to some of the lowest readings of his career. In his final outing before the accident, he averaged 92.1 mph with his fastball (April 19 vs. Royals). Here are his average readings in the three starts since he returned, per FanGraphs:
July 15: 89.7 mph
July 20: 90.4 mph
July 25: 90.4 mph
It’s too early to interpret the diminishment in velocity. It could be that, much like a pitcher working his way through spring training, Bumgarner is still in the process of building velocity. That’s something that the Giants saw from him in March, when sluggish readings early in the month eventually got better.
Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti also acknowledged another possibility Saturday: The 27-year-old, who has logged more than 1,500 innings in his career, is simply not going to throw as hard as he used to -- maybe because of natural wear and tear, maybe partly because of the April accident.
“It was a serious injury,” Righetti said.
But Bumgarner is certainly capable of working through that, because his past excellence was never constructed on high velocity. Rather, he became arguably the greatest postseason pitcher ever with a full mix of pitches augmented by the way he hides the ball in his delivery, by his crossfire motion and, of course, by his competitive edge that is legendary among rival evaluators. The day after Bumgarner’s shutout of the Mets in last year’s National League wild-card game, an executive with another team marveled at his confidence and ability to execute.
“He was just not going to lose that game,” the evaluator said. “He was just not going to allow them to beat him.”
Bumgarner has a 2.11 ERA in 16 postseason games, including a series of performances in San Francisco’s 2014 championship run that might never be matched in the modern era. But as he works his way back from his injury, he seems to still be sorting through adjustments. Coming into the season, Bumgarner focused on improving his changeup, a pitch that naturally complements the cutter that he has run inside to right-handed hitters. And since coming off the disabled list, he has thrown a higher percentage of changeups. But his curveball, an increasingly important pitch for him in recent seasons, has not been as sharp in his July outings; and he’s not throwing it nearly as much as he tries to refine it.
As the Giants try to figure out how to retool for next year, they’ll probably have little payroll flexibility to affect change. The salary increases for Belt and Crawford will eat up a lot of the savings from Matt Cain's expiring contract. And with Johnny Cueto slogging through one of the worst seasons of his career, it might be unlikely that he’ll opt out of his contract. Sam Dyson has been outstanding since being picked up from the Rangers earlier this season, and it might be that between him, Mark Melancon and Will Smith (who is expected to return early in 2018), the Giants could have the makings of a good bullpen.
They should also have a full season from Bumgarner next year. Whether that means the preaccident Bumgarner or postaccident Bumgarner, the Giants don’t know. And they might not know until next year, once he has more time to try to rediscover his velocity and curveball.
Pace of play
The players' association and Major League Baseball have scheduled in August their first discussion about pace of action, and right away, those in the room will probably have a good sense of whether it will result in a rules collaboration or a teeth-pulling negotiation, similar to what collective-bargaining agreement discussions devolved into last fall.
The players will have the opportunity to help steer the upcoming rules changes, and, hopefully, their leadership will come to the table with lots of creative ideas and input from union members. That’s what is needed, and it’s the best that the players can aim for, at this stage.
Look, one way or another, there is going to be major change for the 2018 season. Because of a clause in the CBA -- negotiated long before anyone was concerned about pace of action -- MLB will have the power to unilaterally alter rules during the coming offseason. So, the union has a choice: It can either entrench and passive aggressively resist the ideas that MLB will suggest, whether it be a pitch clock, a regulation on how many times catchers can visit the mound, or a rule about hitters and pitchers stepping away from the batter’s box or pitching rubber, respectively. Or the union can jump into the conversations constructively and offer suggestions that will have a meaningful impact in an attempt to create a product closer to what the players want.
What the players should not do is wait; they should not dally, which is what happened in the CBA talks. Those negotiations stalled seemingly as part of a union strategy, and when the owners threatened to lock out the players at the 24th hour, the two sides slammed through a whole lot of details in a very small window of time. It was just in the past week that the teams received a printed accounting of the CBA, with more examples of what many agents feared -- that the union lost a lot of ground that had been won in past talks. For example: J.J. Cooper of Baseball America reported last week about how big spenders could be penalized in the draft process; one more drag, among others, on teams that have traditionally been big spenders. Some agents -- and some team executives, for that matter -- view the new CBA terms as so draconian that they effectively serve as a hard salary cap.
The players really have nothing to lose in getting into a room with MLB executives and exchanging ideas, pitching suggestions; they could be well-served for it. But if they wait and the clock runs out, they run an increased risk of losing in talks again and being left with changes they don’t like.
Where Baltimore’s priorities are vs. where they should be
Two years ago, the San Diego Padres befuddled the rest of the industry by holding on to tradable assets through the deadline despite having less than a 5 percent chance of making the postseason. Rather than proactively looking to move assets and reduce the cost of a lost season, they hung on to players they could’ve traded, sacrificing money and at least some value in the process.
The Orioles seem to be going down the same path this season, and on Friday, they executed a strange trade. With the team’s playoff chances standing at less than 3 percent, according to FanGraphs, Baltimore traded for Jeremy Hellickson, a veteran starting pitcher who hasn’t had good results this year and is headed into free agency in the fall. In order to facilitate that deal that would only seemingly help the Orioles in a season that’s already lost, Baltimore traded Double-A left-hander Garrett Cleavinger, who does not have to be added to the Phillies’ 40-man roster until after 2018 (giving him another year to develop before Philadelphia has to make a decision on him) and future international-signing-bonus dollars.
The salary of the veterans exchanged in the deal was basically a wash, so the Orioles swapped future assets to try to augment this year’s team, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. It also appears to be a lock that the deadline will come and go without Baltimore having seriously weighed the trade value of some of its veterans who will be headed into free agency over the next 16 months: Manny Machado, Adam Jones and perhaps Zach Britton (although some teams are holding out hope the O’s move Britton). The organization continues to drift toward that time next year when star-level talent might walk out the door without the O’s recouping the desperately needed influx of young talent.
In recent conversation with an executive, I mentioned that the Orioles seemed to be like the Titanic -- drifting toward an iceberg that looms.
“Drifting?” the executive responded incredulously. “They’re accelerating.”
For the sake of the organization beyond 2018, the Orioles are in desperate need of rebuilding.
Around the League
The Dodgers’ Logan Forsythe has been impressed with the perfectionism of shortstop Corey Seager, including how Seager works to reduce the inefficiency in his throwing motion so that he can release the ball as quickly as possible.
Austin Barnes was a second baseman at Arizona State as a freshman. When the Sun Devils lost their backup catcher to injury, Pat Murphy asked Barnes to catch on the side. Barnes embraced the idea because he figured it would give him a better chance to play in that first year -- and in time, after a summer catching in Alaska, he came to really like the position and the emotional investment in every pitch. Barnes might be the fastest catcher in the big leagues: He has five steals in 97 games.
A focus for the Giants this winter will be adding a power hitter. This year, the Giants have been outhomered 117-81.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
With the induction ceremonies in Cooperstown this weekend, we had plenty of Hall of Fame conversation on the most recent episodes.
Class of 2017: Baseball greats offer thoughts about this year’s Hall of Fame class, plus a re-air of our conversation with Tim Raines.
A League of Her Own: A podcast feature on longtime writer Claire Smith, winner of this year’s Spink Award in Cooperstown.
Tuesday: Boog Sciambi on Kershaw; Sarah Langs with The Numbers Game; Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe on Price and Dennis Eckersley, and what needs to happen next.
And today will be better than yesterday.