Madison Bumgarner made his 2018 season debut on Tuesday night, and while the Giants lost to the D-backs, the return of the 28-year-old staff ace couldn’t have come at a much better time. The team’s rotation has been a mess due to injuries and underperformance, but a surprisingly resilient offense has kept them in the thick of what’s become a four-team NL West race.
Bumgarner, who was limited to 17 starts last year due to his infamous dirt-bike accident, suffered a fractured pinkie on his left (pitching) hand via a line drive off the bat of the Royals’ Whit Merrifield back on March 23. The injury required the insertion of three small pins that were removed four weeks later. He made just two rehab starts before returning to the Giants, so despite his strong performance, it wasn’t much of a surprise that he was pulled after six innings and 82 pitches with the Giants trailing, 2-1. Of the eight hits he allowed, six came in his first three innings, with back-to-back doubles by Ketel Marte and Chris Owings and a single by Kris Negron accounting for both Arizona runs in the second inning. Bumgarner needed a bit of help from his defense to escape a two-on, no-out mess in the third, with Brandon Crawford throwing out David Peralta at the plate and then Evan Longoria and Pablo Sandoval immediately following that with a 5-3 double play. Bumgarner didn’t walk anybody, generated 10 swing-and-misses (seven via his cutter), and all three of his strikeouts came in his final two innings of work.
Alas, Bumgarner pitched on a night when D-backs starter Patrick Corbin and company were just a bit better. The Giants’ 3-2 loss ended a five-game winning streak, but they rebounded on Wednesday for a come-from-behind, walk-off win. At 31-31, they’re just 1.5 games behind the D-backs and Rockies, who are tied for the division lead at 32-29. With the Dodgers struggling out of the gate, Arizona took a commanding lead in April, but its May slide and L.A.’s recent hot streak have helped to turn the NL West back into a race:
The Giants haven’t exactly been good, mind you, but 22 of their 31 losses to date came amid two dreadful stretches, a 2-7 one from April 8-17 and a 6-15 one from May 7-29. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, they’re 23-9, ready to resume that pattern of even-year glory that they eschewed in 2016.
Obviously it doesn’t work quite like that, but for a team that’s gotten just 14 starts and 0.7 WAR from their top three starters (Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and Jeff Samardzija), the Giants are lucky not to be en route to a rerun of last year’s 67-95 mess. Cueto, who was limited to 25 starts and an uninspiring 4.52 ERA/4.49 FIP in 2017 due to blisters and a flexor strain, pitched brilliantly over his first five turns (0.84 ERA, 2.74 FIP) before being sidelined by elbow inflammation in late April, while Samardzija, who missed the season’s first three weeks due to a pectoral strain, was torched (6.56 ERA/5.86 FIP in eight starts) before going back to the DL due to shoulder inflammation. Both could be back by the end of this month; the Giants’ initial expectation was that Samardzija would miss only one turn, but the team will know more after his next bullpen session on Friday, and they’re optimistic Cueto will be ready by the time he’s eligible to return from the 60-day DL on June 29.
In their absence, manager Bruce Bochy and company have relied heavily upon Ty Blach, Derek Holland, and Chris Stratton, who have combined for 37 starts while averaging only 5.1-to-5.3 innings per turn. All three have ERAs of 4.63 or higher (ERA- of 122 or higher), and Blach, a 27-year-old southpaw, is the only one with a FIP below 4.38 (FIP- below 110), that despite an 11.1% strikeout rate and a 2.6 K-BB%, both the league’s lowest among starters with at least 60 innings. Blach, whose ERA outside of his strong work against the Dodgers (three runs allowed in 17 innings over three starts) is just 5.85, was moved to the bullpen in anticipation of Bumgarner’s return. Still part of the rotation — and generally the best of the bunch — has been 25-year-old rookie lefty Andrew Suarez, who owns a 4.74 ERA and a 3.89 FIP thanks to a 23.5% strikeout rate and a microscopic 4.5% walk rate.
Including two starts by Tyler Beede and one by Dereck Rodriguez (son of Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez), San Francisco’s makeshift rotation ranks an unimpressive 10th in FIP (4.25) and 13th in ERA (4.58); park-adjustment-wise, they’re 12th in FIP- (112) and 13th in ERA- (121). Meanwhile, their bullpen is eighth in ERA (3.84) but a more respectable fourth in FIP (3.59) due in part to their fourth-ranked walk rate (8.9%). Hunter Strickland has done a solid job filling in for the injured Mark Melancon as closer, and both lefty Tony Watson and righty Sam Dyson have fared well in setup roles, but the rest is a mixed bag. Bochy has let us all down by not bringing Sandoval back for regular duty after his perfect inning on April 28. Melancon, the $62 million closer, just returned on June 3 from further issues with the pronator syndrome that limited him to 30 innings last year and required a stem cell injection in April.
Though they’ve been outscored by 31 runs, the Giants do have a solid offense. Yes, they’re only scoring 4.18 runs per game (ninth in the NL, three notches above where their 4.68 runs allowed ranks), but their 104 wRC+ ranks third in the league, and they’re getting above-average production (a wRC+ above 100) at every position save for second base (97) and left field (74). Unfortunately, they just lost Brandon Belt, who’s third in the league with a 160 wRC+ (.307/.403/.547) to an appendectomy that could keep him out until late June, but Brandon Crawford was the majors’ most improved hitter from April to May and ranks 11th in the league with a 137 wRC+. Buster Posey is 18th with a 128 mark, and Andrew McCutchen is 33rd at 116, having dug his way out of a deep early-season hole that he shared with Evan Longoria (97, with Sandoval’s strong spot-start work pushing the team average to 104 at third).
The Giants’ 115 wRC+ during the month of May was the league’s second-highest mark, and it featured some surprising contributors in addition to the red-hot Crawford (192). Gorkys Hernandez claimed the regular center field job on the strength of his torrid month (.325/.369/.584, 161 wRC+), and former Pirates prospect Alen Hanson put in a further claim for playing time while filling in for Joe Panik at second (.316/.357/.658, 172 wRC+) before going down with a left hamstring strain. Both Hanson and Panik, who missed five weeks due to a left thumb sprain that required surgery, are back now.
Sandoval, who has reinvented himself as a suddenly patient batter and utilityman — he even made two starts at second base in late May, and we can only assume he’ll sing “The Star Spangled Banner” before June is out — will get the bulk of the first-base duty in Belt’s absence. The open question is what will happen in left field. Hunter Pence, who opened the season there before spraining his right thumb, spent more than a month at Triple-A Sacramento reworking his swing with hitting instructor Doug Latta (who helped Justin Turner), but that has yet to pay off; he’s hit just .190/.235/.206 in 68 plate appearances overall and is now a 35-year-old fourth outfielder with a tenuous hold on a roster spot. Mac Williamson (another Latta protégé) homered three times in his first five games after being called up in late April to replace Pence, but a concussion knocked him out of action for a month, and he’s struggled to regain form, hitting just .237/.310/.342 in his first 42 PA since returning. If neither he or Pence can get it going, the versatile Hanson, who had 45 games of professional experience at the position prior to this season (and three innings in two appearances this year), could be worth a longer look there.
Though they’ve outdone their Pythagenpat projection by about three wins, the Giants are underperforming relative to their BaseRuns projection on both sides of the ball (4.52 runs per game scoring, 4.37 allowed). They’ve weathered some major storms, and while their overall Playoff Odds are actually down slightly since the start of the season, they’ve got a better shot at a flag in the underwhelming NL West, and they have nearly doubled their admittedly slim chances at winning the World Series:
|Date||Win Division||Win Wild Card||Make Playoffs||Win World Series|
Via our Depth Charts projections, Bumgarner, whose absence was baked into those preseason odds, is expected to produce 2.2 WAR the rest of the way, about a one-and-a-half-win improvement over the various and sundry alternatives at hand, and the returns of Cueto and Samardzija should help as well. In a division where no team appears likely to run away, that could be enough even-year magic to get by.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.