Barry Zito

Pitch counts and Madison Bumgarner

Mike Krukow said it on Friday night when Madison Bumgarner got strike one against Albert Pujols in their last battle, a lively confrontation that resulted in Pujols hitting a home run to center and ending Bumgarner’s night in the 8th inning: if the Giants make the playoffs, Bumgarner would be one of the starters. Then yesterday happened, and the especially cautious among us have to wonder whether Bumgarner’s getting tired or it was just a blip on the screen caused by facing the best offense in the NL on a hotter-than-average day.

Back to Krukow’s comment. Forget the first obvious question of how the Giants plan on making it to the postseason, and let’s focus on the second-most obvious question, how will Bumgarner last the entire season? After all, these days it seems like running a 21-year-old phenom out there every fifth day feels like driving a new Ferrari on Highway 17 without insurance.

After taking a look at the pitch counts Bumgarner has racked up this season, both in the minors and with San Francisco, it appears that the Giants have a plan for young MaddyMaddyBumBum. Not a really logical plan (shocking for a team who picks up outfielders like my dad picks up bags of black licorice), but a plan nonetheless.

Bumgarner entered Spring Training with a line on a rotation spot, and had it taken away from him after Todd Wellemeyer didn’t puke all over himself in March and Bumgarner’s lack of winter conditioning irked Brian Sabean. Off to Fresno he went, and they handled his starts with extreme caution to start the season, with his April starts showing pitch totals of 79, 77, 74 and 99.

Even though as April came to a close Bumgarner stopped his annoying habit of getting shelled, the pitch counts stayed below that triple-digit threshold until the very end of May. Pitch counts of 85, 90, 87, 95, 93 and 106 (in a 7 2/3 inning, 0 ER outing that was his strongest of the year to that date) showed that while they were starting to stretch him out a little, probably as the Giants watched Wellemeyer struggle on the road and realized that they were going to need Bumgarner full-time, and the sooner the better.

In June they started giving Bumgarner a longer leash, a precursor to a stretch of 100+ pitch performances in July that would give Stephen Strasburg nightmares. Starting with a win over Las Vegas on June 2, Bumgarner’s June starts included 104 pitches, then 83 (when he gave up 5 ER to Sacramento), 90 and 111 in his last Triple-A start, in which he struck out a season-high 11 and got a no-decision in a 6-4 loss to Reno.

Bumgarner was able to get through 7 innings in a 4-2 loss to the Red Sox in 90 pitches, but from then on his pitch counts look like this: 111, 115, 103, 100 and 103, before getting a break against Florida (80 pitches over 6 IP in a 5-0 loss where he gave up 3 ER) on July 29.

Since then it looks like the Giants have Bumgarner back on the 100-pitch ceiling regimen. In August, his starts have gone 89 pitches, 100, 92 and 97 in his start on Friday against the Cards. And if all that was confusing, here’s a list of the pitch counts by date:

4/9 (@REN): 79

4/14 (@LV): 77

4/19 (POR): 74

4/25 (@POR): 79

5/2 (SAC):85

5/7 (SLC): 90

5/12 (@NO): 87

5/17 (@OKC): 95

5/23 (NAS): 93

5/28 (@SLC): 106

6/2 (@LV): 104

6/7 (SAC): 83

6/15 (POR): 90

6/20 (REN): 111

6/26 (BOS): 96

7/1 (@COL): 111

7/6 (@MIL): 115

7/11 (@WSH): 103

7/19 (@LAD): 100

7/24 (@ARI): 103

7/29 (FLA): 80

8/4 (@COL): 89

8/9 (CHC): 100

8/14 (SD): 92

8/20 (@STL) 97

8/25 (CIN): 77

So what does it all mean?

The Giants plan looks like it’s something like this: start him off slow, keep the pitch count ceiling at 100, but let him go longer if he’s pitching well and/or the bullpen’s really tired. Scientific, this plan isn’t.

Bumgarner’s pitched 155 1/3 innings this season combined (70 1/3 in the Majors) and has thrown 2,336 pitches (1,172 over 14 minor league starts; 1,164 over 12 MLB starts). The combined innings total would put him 25th in the NL (between Clayton Richard and Hideki Kuroda) if he were in the Majors all season. Couldn’t find any list longer than this, but his pitch total would put Bumgarner about 200 pitches behind the guy who’s at No. 20 in the NL in pitches thrown, Jonathan Sanchez. So in other words, he’s thrown about as many pitches as would be expected from an above-average fifth starter.

I hate to be that guy, and I know that pitch counts don’t tell the whole story without taking into account high-stress innings, mechanics, velocity readouts and other variables, but Bumgarner’s going to need some rest. Sorry Rob Dibble, but I have doubts that a kid who just turned 21, who’s never pitched this many innings before and came into this season out of shape, can keep pitching every fifth game until the season’s over. But that’s what’s going to happen, especially since there’s no more Wellemeyer, Tim Lincecum’s trying to find himself and both Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito are liable to get knocked out in the fourth inning every few starts.

I’d like the Giants to handle Bumgarner the way the Rays used David Price at the end of the 2008 season and in the playoffs, but that’s not exactly fair. Price only started one game in the regular season out of 5 appearances. Bumgarner’s further along in his development than Price was, even though Price was 23 when he was called up.

But I think it’s time to skip a Bumgarner start, preferably the next one, although the one after might be easier since the Giants will have an expanded roster … except none of the starters are really pitching all that well in Fresno. Since the Giants have been using the waiver wire to pick up superfluous talent ever since the trade deadline came and went, perhaps they can search the scrap heap for a serviceable fifth starter? Because while I hate obsessing over pitch counts, it’d be even worse to see Bumgarner walking off the field in the fourth inning, shaking and flexing his forearm and elbow like a certain phenom in our nation’s capital.

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