Giants Look For Charge From Future Battery
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Giants top prospects Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner form the most highly touted battery in baseball. But they had trouble holding a charge last year in the late-summer heat.
Scouts were alarmed when Bumgarner, a talented lefthander, couldn't touch 90 mph in August at Double-A Connecticut. And Posey, a former Baseball America College Player of the Year as a standout catcher at Florida State, disappointed scouts when his gifted bat looked slow and heavy in the Arizona Fall League, and some started to question whether he could handle major league velocity behind the plate.
The Giants have too much invested in both players to see them fail—and we're talking about more than the $8.2 million in draft bonuses handed out to their 2007 and 2008 first-round picks.
Posey is the golden child destined to lead the Giants out of a two-decade drought in developing standout position players. Bumgarner is the latest pitching prodigy in a pipeline that has produced Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez in recent years. They are the two most important products of a farm system that general manager Brian Sabean was ordered to rebuild from the ground up.
So are the Giants concerned? Not in the least.
"You have to take constructive criticism from the right people," Posey said. "For me, that's the coaches, managers and scouts within the Giants organization. Everything else, you put by the wayside. In one ear, out the other.
"You've got to have confidence in yourself and belief in your ability."
Said Bumgarner: "I'd love to throw 100 mph every time, but not everybody can do that. It's not a big deal to me. I'm confident."
Club officials say there are explanations for both players' late-season swoons.
Bumgarner, who turned 20 in August, had a tightly regulated workload in his starts last season, but he was mule stubborn in his side sessions. He was so intent to improve his changeup and slurvy breaking ball that he spent too many bullets on the bullpen mound.
He didn't realize he was throwing so much in between starts until vice president Dick Tidrow paid a visit to Connecticut and told him to ease up.
"I'm positive that's what it was," said Bumgarner, whose perfectionist streak runs deep. "I'll never finish up on a throw I didn't think was good enough. I was working on my offspeed pitches and I was trying to throw nothing but good ones. I was trying to make 'em too good, too fast. And then, when you get tired, that's when you fall into bad habits."
Giants pitching coordinator Bert Bradley pointed out that Bumgarner's stuff was more than effective all season long. He finished with a 9-1, 1.93 record in 19 starts (20 games) despite being one of the youngest pitchers in the Eastern League.
"He's got that late life," Bradley said. "His fastball picks up speed. He's not comfortable for anyone to face. Against lefties, his (three-quarters) delivery makes it look like he's throwing 10 feet behind the guy. Guys don't like to stand in because he crossfires a little bit."
Bradley acknowledged that Bumgarner lost some velocity last season. But it was more of a slight dip than an all-out plummet.
"He wasn't ever throwing 95, and I'm not sure where that came from," Bradley said. "He'd touch 94 and pitch around 91-92. He did fine. He's had a lot of pressure on him, but you'll see him get better. He's like Matt Cain—country strong."
Bradley said he was encouraged by Bumgarner's overall development as a pitcher last season, which is why he was a surprising callup in September and was poised to begin this season as the Giants' No. 5 starter.
Earlier last season at Connecticut, Bradley recalled he wasn't satisfied when Bumgarner threw just two changeups in a game. So he issued an ultimatum: Start throwing it more, or he'd start calling the pitch—and tell hitters it was coming.
Bradley noticed an obvious difference in Bumgarner during his next start.
"The first 15 pitches he threw were all changeups. And he struck out the side," Bradley said.
During all this time, Bumgarner and Posey were on opposite coasts. The Giants had promoted Bumgarner after he posted a 1.48 ERA in his first five starts at high Class A San Jose. By design, Posey remained in the South Bay a few months longer and compiled a .326/.428/.540 line in 80 games. When it came time for a midseason promotion, the Giants boosted him all the way to Triple-A Fresno. His bat (.321/.391/.511 in 35 games) proved more than ready for the Pacific Coast League, too.
Like Bumgarner, Posey was a surprise addition to the Giants roster in September. And when Posey caught the young lefthander in side sessions, he noticed an immediate difference.
"In just those three or four months, he definitely made improvements to his curveball and changeup," Posey said. "He'll always be a guy who pitches off his fastball, and he could probably get away with throwing it 90 percent of the time. But he realizes at the higher levels he'll have to throw something else. I believe he'll have three or four pitches and he'll know how to use them."
Posey's task is to know how to call them. While he has made great strides in his mechanics and overall work behind the plate, he's still learning the finer points, like framing pitches for the umpire. And he's also becoming accustomed to calling his own game.
Those were major reasons the Giants didn't feel the converted infielder was ready to begin the season as their Opening Day catcher, instead re-signing Bengie Molina to a one-year contract. So he will likely open the season back in Triple-A and earn his way back to San Francisco during the season.
"Check how many games he's actually caught," Sabean said over the winter. "It's minuscule compared to people who had a lot more than that and got to the big leagues. Obviously, we have a premium staff, and first and foremost, he'd have to take on those duties. We know he's going to hit, but if for some reason he does not, you wouldn't want to be in that position to send him back or put that kind of pressure on him. That's our overall concern. He may be better off to earn his way here."
And what about that dragging, .225 average in the AFL? The Giants don't deny that Posey's lack of stamina was a concern, too.
"He was pretty whipped," Sabean said. "Some of it is just by nature; he hasn't played enough professionally."
Posey, who will open the season at 23, had been called up as a third catcher and barely played with San Francisco last season. But he wasn't on scholarship. He caught multiple bullpen sessions every day, both prior to games and during them, which added to his fatigue.
But the quietly confident prospect wasn't hunting for excuses.
"I didn't play well," he said. "Yeah, I was tired, but so is everyone else in the fall league."
Posey did something about it. He hit the weight room six days a week over the winter, and with the help of his wife's cooking, he put on 15 pounds to check into spring training at 215. When camp opened in Scottsdale, coaches noted that Posey looked the part in his shinguards and chest protector.
Posey is confident enough to dismiss any notion that he has trouble catching premium, high-velocity stuff.
"I don't feel that's an issue at all," Posey said firmly. "Honestly, that's not anything I concern myself about."
Away from the ballpark, Posey and Bumgarner are on a different kind of fast track. Even though he isn't of legal drinking age, Bumgarner is a landowner near his hometown in Hudson, N.C., and married his high school sweetheart on Valentine's Day. Posey got married to his high school girlfriend after his 21st birthday and is the pride of Leesburg, Ga., even receiving the key to the city before he departed for spring training a year ago.
Leesburg has a population of 2,920. There are 3,078 people in Hudson. The two towns are probably too small to have a sister cities program, but they're certainly linked in one respect.
Posey and Bumgarner didn't realize it, but their fathers even have the same job. They both work for major food distribution firms. And now these two farm products are nearing arrival in San Francisco.
"He's definitely one of the most competitive pitchers I've caught," Posey said. "He's one of those 'flip the switch' guys."
The Giants are confident the lights will come on soon—for both of them.