SAN FRANCISCO -- Madison Bumgarner is regarded as baseball's best-hitting pitcher, but as he carried a bat toward the runway that leads to the field at AT&T Park, he was somewhat mournful on the topic. "Have you seen the numbers?" he asked.
Bumgarner has three hits and 12 strikeouts in 23 at-bats this season, which is why he was joking Saturday -- or maybe he wasn't joking -- about going back to the same approach that he had through much of last season, which was to not practice hitting. At all.
Even when he was called on to pinch-hit last season, he said, he would go into the indoor cage and take only a couple of dry swings, not against any pitches, not even hitting a ball off a tee. With that approach to preparation, Bumgarner batted .247 last season, with five homers in 77 at-bats, and as a pinch hitter, he had two hits in three at-bats, plus a walk.
Bumgarner, who starts against the Cubs on Sunday Night Baseball, is taking batting practice again this season. He loves to hit, loves to try to drive the ball as far as he possibly can -- and in a game early this season, this worked against Clayton Kershaw (you can see his homer here). On April 9, Bumgarner became one of only 13 active major leaguers to have two homers in his career against a pitcher seemingly destined to go down as one of the all-time greats.
Bumgarner and Kershaw are friends, something that started on days when they both were out on the field running between starts -- something that few pitchers seem to do these days -- and started chatting. After the most recent home run, Bumgarner said, he good-naturedly gave Kershaw a hard time. Kershaw has 88 strikeouts and four walks, and in talking about the left-hander, Bumgarner wondered whether we might be seeing the best pitcher of all time doing his best work ever.
Bumgarner has been exceptional on the mound as well, working through some mechanical issues that he has been trying to correct, something in his delivery that he has felt. But even through that, evaluators have talked about how well Bumgarner has been working low and away to right-handed hitters, dominating to that corner, something he feels he hadn't always been able to do in the past.
In the conditions at AT&T Park, where hitters can only hope that some sunshine can offset the damp, cold and swirling wind, low and away is an effective place to pitch because even the best hitters can't do too much damage against a well-executed pitch there.
Over his past six starts, Bumgarner has allowed just 11 walks and two homers in 42 2/3 innings, while striking out 50 and posting a 1.69 ERA. Tonight he faces a Cubs lineup that got off to a record-setting start but has slowed down of late.