There are pitchers who have to hit. There are pitchers who can hit. And then there's Madison Bumgarner.
For the San Francisco Giants, the difference is just as easily confirmed by the senses as by the numbers.
"There is always a chance that he might do something. That's our feeling about him when he's up there," hitting coach Hensley Meulens said at the Giants' media day last week. "I can see some pitchers fear him because he swings so hard and hits the ball out of the park."
There's no scoffing at the Giants for standing at attention when their ace is at the plate. And really, there's no blaming fellow hurlers for fearing him.
John Q. Pitcher has stayed mired in offensive futility over the last three seasons, producing just a .323 OPS and going deep 0.4 percent of the time. Meanwhile, Bumgarner has been on another level in compiling a .703 OPS and hitting 12 of his 14 career home runs.
Which brings us to this incredible tidbit from Ryan M. Spaeder of Sporting News:
Ryan M. Spaeder @theaceofspaeder
#SFGiants Madison Bumgarner has hit home runs at a greater rate (2.69%) than he has allowed them (2.31%) during his career. https://t.co/ZhK4TtTiLL2017-2-11 01:06:16
Bumgarner's dinger rate has been 4.7 percent since 2014, with a home run coming every 19.1 at-bats. It's an impressive rate by any standard, and the 27-year-old isn't one to let his teammates forget it.
"He makes sure that we know that his home runs per at-bat is better than any of ours," said shortstop Brandon Crawford, who's homered every 36.1 at-bats since 2014.
What makes Bumgarner a great pitcher is a fascinating topic in its own right. With sound mechanics, strong command and sharp-yet-not-electric stuff, his style is as soothing as it is effective. He's the only pitcher with four straight years of over 200 innings and a sub-3.00 ERA, and he's made it look easy.
Bumgarner's power, however, is not so understated.
It's only in the last two years that advanced batted ball data has truly taken off. But in that time, Bumgarner's dingers have been launched higher, come off the bat faster and traveled farther than homers hit by the average major league hitter:
|MLB's Home Runs vs. Bumgarner's Home Runs: 2015-2016|
|Launch Angle (DEG)||Exit Velo (MPH)||Distance (FT)|
Such is life with raw pop that even the Giants' best hitters can respect. A quick survey of Crawford, Brandon Belt and Buster Posey revealed that they take Bumgarner's power seriously enough to even rate it alongside that of Hunter Pence, whose 207 career homers lead all active Giants.
"If I had to give somebody an edge for raw power, I'd probably go Pence. Just overall consistency with raw power. But Bum hits the ball maybe a little bit further than he does," Posey said.
And Pence himself: "I think Madison hits it a little further than me. If you were to put us side by side, Madison's probably got the biggest home run power. Like batting practice home run power."
Truth is: There's a little modesty at work here.
...But only a little. The homers Pence has hit over the last two seasons have averaged 407 feet, just six feet more than Bumgarner's. When comparing all fly balls and line drives, the edge goes to the pitcher.
Some of this is simply Bumgarner's size at work. He's listed at 6'5" and 250 pounds. That would make him five pounds heavier and just an inch shorter than noted dinger king Giancarlo Stanton.
However, Ted Williams' notion that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports would be on thin ice if Bumgarner was merely an oafish brute who needed just sheer strength to clear fences. It wasn't surprising to hear there is more to him than that.
"You would think that he was a position player, because I’ve seen him get pissed off about his at-bats more so than he gets pissed off about what happens on the mound," said Ron Wotus, the Giants bench coach since 1999.
"If you talk to Bum about hitting in any circumstance, you'd think he was a hitter and not a pitcher," echoed Meulens. "He talks so much about hitting and he's always tinkering and, when he's not pitching, he's watching hitters and watching what he can take away from them."
Bumgarner's hitting obsession is partially a survival tactic.
Word is he loves batting practice, but he has to take it when he can get it. It's not ideal for any pitcher to take 40 to 50 hacks in the cage every day. It's even less ideal when a given pitcher is a left-handed thrower and a right-handed batter. That means extra risk on the ol' moneymaker.
In lieu of endless hacks, Bumgarner hones his hitting by catching as catch can.
That could be as simple as approaching a teammate and asking about an opposing pitcher's movement. Or something complicated like getting an idea for a mechanical tweak.
Like, for example, when he decided in 2014 that he wanted to open up his stance and add a leg kick.
"Before that, I would change every start and try to figure out what felt the best, what I thought was going to work," Bumgarner told Maddie Lee of the San Francisco Chronicle last summer. "And that's just the one I went with."
And so, hitting mechanics that involved a closed stance and a toe tap in 2012:
Suddenly looked like this in 2014:
Meulens pointed to better timing and more explosiveness in Bumgarner's hips as the benefits of these mechanics. Just the things he needs to make his particular approach work.
"His mindset is to get up there and attack," Meulens said. "Because what do [pitchers] do? They hit once every five days. They get 60, 70, 80 at-bats a year. They know they're not gonna be .300 hitters, perhaps. But if they catch one right, they can help themselves win some games."
The best way for a hitter to catch one right is to pull the ball. To wit, 34.8 percent of pulled fly balls went over the fence last year, compared to 8.3 percent up the middle and 4.0 percent the other way.
Bumgarner's ability to aim the ball where home runs are most easily found is eyebrow-raisingly good. He's pulled 56.0 percent of his batted balls since 2014. That's Brian Dozier territory.
"He has a pull-type swing," said Meulens. "If he didn’t have a pull-type swing, it’s hard to do that. But he knows that he can catch the ball out front, which we try to get some of our hitters to do and they can’t because they have a different type of swing."
To boot, it's generally not hanging curveballs and the like that Bumgarner turns on.
"He can hit anybody's fastball. Velocity doesn't get him out," said Wotus. "You think about all the players who have played in the majors, you have to be able to hit the fastball. He has fastball bat speed. We'll be facing a guy where other guys are getting jammed or they can't catch up, and he's on it."
Indeed, the league's ever-escalating fastball velocity isn't stopping Bumgarner from sending the darn things back with authority. As the rest of the league has slugged .432 against fastballs since 2014, he's slugged .500 against them.
Bumgarner has slayed some dragons in the process. His most recent home run was a blast off a 95-mph fastball from New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom. He also owns two home runs off fastballs from Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
And yeah, he makes sure his teammates don't forget that either.
"Yeah, he lets us know. Absolutely," said a chuckling Trevor Brown, the Giants' backup catcher.
But now for the bad news: The jig is up.
"I wouldn't throw him very many fastballs over the plate," said Brown. "I think that's kinda what started happening to him towards the end of the year. Everyone was like, 'We can't throw this guy a fastball, he's gonna hit it a mile.'"
On the plus side, Bumgarner is becoming increasingly aware of his limits.
"He's actually become a pretty good hitter at the plate," Crawford said. "He'll take pitches. He'll take tough pitches—like a two-strike slider or something like that, and he'll take it. He'll take a walk."
He sure will. After hacking his way to Silver Sluggers in 2014 and 2015, Bumgarner showed more restraint and drew a career-high 10 free passes in 2016. He's just the fourth pitcher since 2000 to walk in double digits in a season and the first since Ian Kennedy in 2012.
In all, the man lives up to the legend.
It's no joke that Giants skipper Bruce Bochy has used Bumgarner as a pinch hitter 10 times. Nor that Bochy let Bumgarner hit for himself in an American League park last year. Nor was Bumgarner joking when he lobbied to participate in the 2016 Home Run Derby. And he sure as hell wasn't joking when he tore into fellow ace Max Scherzer when he suggested that pitchers shouldn't bat.
This is a pitcher who acts like a hitter. And who, especially relative to his pitching brethren, hits like one, too.
And Bumgarner may not be done yet. He does, after all, have to answer to teammates who are quick with snarky reminders of their own.
"He didn't win a Silver Slugger [for 2016], though. So he's kinda slacking," Crawford said.