Yes, you can never have enough pitching. You win with it, you lose to it, you can’t live without it and, if the margins are narrow enough, you live and die with every pitch. Welcome to Bruce Bochy’s world in a Melky-free world. And welcome to the reason why he can thank his lucky stars that he’s the man managing a rotation with Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Monday night’s starter against the Dodgers, Madison Bumgarner.
Bumgarner was in perfect command against the evil SoCal boys in blue, mowing them down through eight scoreless frames while whiffing 10 in San Francisco's 2-1 victory. Just another day at the office for one of the Giants’ rotation horses, his 18th quality start on the season, and a reminder that this club is far from done where the National League West race is concerned.
But there’s more to it than that. This summer, with all the talk of extending or overextending young superstar prospects on the mound during a pennant race, Bumgarner is a great example of the wisdom of not letting expectations set your timetable where young pitching is concerned. Coming into 2010, Bumgarner was supposed to be all that, flame-throwing southpaw’d greatness in cleats at the tender age of 20. And then he wasn’t -- he wasn’t throwing hard, having lost five miles per hour off his heat from his minor league days. He wasn’t mowing people down. He wasn’t greatness in cleats, or street shoes or flip-flops.
He also wasn’t hurt, although preseason conditioning turned out to be an issue. But from that seeming disappointment, Bumgarner has significantly changed his repertoire from what he was when he was a top prospect. His velocity has remained in low-90s territory, but he has come to rely more and more on a devastating slider that has helped him boost his swings-and-misses to a 16 percent clip despite whatever it was he lost on his fastball. He’s arguably a better pitcher as a result. He’s also only just turned 23, and more than a year younger than Stephen Strasburg.
That deafening silence you hear over Bumgarner’s birth certificate is the concern over his workload. Because without starting pitching, the Giants could be done. But if Tim Lincecum really does get his kinks ironed out, they may have four horses to ride all the way to the end.
If we can credit Bochy for helping keep Bumgarner saddled up and delivering, we might also credit Bochy for always being willing to wangle some extra way to score to make good on the slender margins his pitchers provide. Whatever the talent Bochy is working with, and even whatever the defensive sacrifices he might have to make behind that starting staff.
Picking between Justin Christian and Gregor Blanco to start in Melky Cabrera’s place in the outfield is sure to make you ask where Nate Schierholtz got to (Philadelphia), and what’s behind Door No. 3, but we’ll see what Bochy’s willing to risk in the weeks to come. If general manager Brian Sabean swings a waiver deal for a veteran bat, don’t be surprised -- it’s the sort of move he has been able to pull off in the past, and again, with this kind of pitching, a little bit of offense goes a long way.
Bochy is so hungry for runs, he’s even platooning at shortstop lately, spotting Joaquin Arias’ single-riffic plinky-ness for Brandon Crawford against the league’s lefties. Platooning at a key up-the-middle position like short? That might work considering Arias’ .818 OPS against lefties in about 200 big-league plate appearances, but it’s also slightly more risky this season than in years past, because the Giants are no longer leading the league in strikeout rate, instead whiffing opponents a very league-average 20 percent of the time. That means more balls in play, and more chances the defense could cost you. The Giants are a little above-average in defensive efficiency (.696, vs. the NL-standard .690), but it’s still a risk.
Then again, this is the manager who helped the Giants win it all in 2010 by coming up with one of the craziest platoons of recent memory: Splitting at-bats between first baseman Travis Ishikawa and center fielder Aaron Rowand in the lineup across first base and the outfield in July through Aug. 14, while moving Andres Torres and Aubrey Huff around to accommodate them. Rotating in Ishikawa helped launch a 27-13 Giants run that preceded their deals for Jose Guillen and Cody Ross. It had less to do with Ishikawa’s greatness than it did with working with what Bochy had at his disposal and getting enough runs to win with an incredible pitching staff.
In short, Bochy has got a well-earned rep as a lineup MacGyver: Give the man some used gum, a pencil and a Topps card to be named later, and he might just give you an edge, part of the reason why Chris Jaffe’s excellent book "Evaluating Baseball’s Managers" described him as one of the most underrated skippers in baseball history.
One of the things Jaffe suggested in his book was the Achilles’ heel that Bochy’s teams had back in San Diego when he managed the Padres was that they tended to be short on pitching. Happily for him and for the Giants, thanks to Madison Bumgarner & Co. that’s one problem this year’s Giants don’t have.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.