The San Francisco Giants pulled off the improbable Wednesday night: they won a World Series in which their leadoff hitter rarely got on base and their No. 3 hitter couldn’t have driven him in if he had.
Gregor Blanco led off for the Giants and kept the bases empty, batting .143 for the Series and .153 for the postseason. Busty Posey was the run producer who didn’t produce many; he hit .154 for the Series and .246 for the postseason, driving in seven runs in 17 games, with nary an extra-base hit in 69 at-bats.
That the Giants won had a lot to do with Madison Bumgarner, which you might have heard about. Before Game 7, Royals manager Ned Yost said: “Bumgarner is a great starting pitcher. We’ll see what kind of reliever he is.”
Pretty good we can assume Yost would agree now, even by the standards of the manager of the best bullpen in baseball in 2014.
Bumgarner retired 14 in a row Wednesday and went longer than expected. Because how could manager Bruce Bochy take him out when he kept getting batters out? The only sign of Game 7 nerves came in the post-game show from the Chevy representative giving Bumgarner, the Series MVP, the keys to his new truck. If that was Chevy’s idea of marketing, Bumgarner might want to have the truck checked by his own mechanic.
Bumgarner’s Series numbers are pretty well-documented. Here are some more: in three Series games, Bumgarner faced 74 batters, and of the two who didn’t walk or sacrifice, just nine got hits, for a .125 average; Bumgarner’s on-base percentage against was .135 and his slugging percentage against was .194; Bumgarner’s .329 OPS against was 66 points lower than Posey’s .395 OPS for.
It would seem as hard to overstate Bumgarner’s brilliance as it was to hit him. And yet …
“You’ll never see that again — the way he pitched the first two games and then to come back and do what he did,” said reliever Jeremy Affeldt, whose win Bumgarner first confiscated and then returned after a scoring decision appropriately changed the winning pitcher from Bumgarner to Affeldt.
Affeldt’s declaration — repeated by countless others — is decidedly untrue, and we know we’ll see a pitching performance like Bumgarner’s again for one reason: we’ve seen them before.
Orel Hershiser started Games 1, 3 and 7 and saved Game 4 to help the Los Angeles Dodgers beat a better New York Mets team in the 1988 NLCS. Hershiser gave his team 2-0 and 4-3 leads it couldn’t hold in Games 1 and 3, secured the last out of Game 4 in the 12th inning the next day after closer Jay Howell was suspended, and pitched a five-hit shutout two days after that to win Game 7. He threw two more complete games the next week, including a three-hit shutout in Game 2, to win the Series.
Was Bumgarner’s postseason (52.2 innings, 28 hits, 6 earned runs, 6 walks, 45 Ks, 1.02 ERA, seven games in 29 days) better than Hershisher’s (42.2 innings, 25 hits, 5 earned runs, 13 walks, 32 strikeouts, 1.05 ERA, six games in 16 days)?
Bumgarner set a record with his 52.2 innings pitched in the postseason, which raised his season total to 270 innings pitched. That’s 65.2 less than Sandy Koufax pitched in the 1965 regular season, and Koufax also appeared in Game 7 of the World Series on two days rest. Except Koufax started it and didn’t need the bullpen to finish it (his ’65 Series numbers were a lot like Bumgarner’s: 24 innings, one earned run, an 0.38 ERA).
Was Bumgarner’s World Series (21 innings, nine hits, 1 walk, 17 strikeouts, 0.43 ERA) better than Koufax’s (24 innings, 13 hits, 5 walks, 29 strikeouts, 0.38 ERA)?
(These are the kinds of questions that once dominated the offseason. Now it’s who’s going to pony up $20 million a year for Pablo Sandoval?)
Mickey Lolich went out and won the 1968 World Series on two days rest, pitching a complete game five-hitter to dethrone the defending world champion Cardinals. Of course, Lolich only had to beat Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who had won seven Series games in a row, in Game 7 and not Jeremy Guthrie.
Yes, times have changed. Koufax retired after 1966, precisely in part because of the consequences of his heavy workload. (Nothing indicates more how times have changed than the 1968 approach of manager Mayo Smith, whose Tigers trailed 3-2 in Game 5 with one out and nobody on base in the seventh. Smith let Lolich hit — no DH — the kind of move Ned Yost might make, eight outs from elimination. Lolich, a .110 career hitter, singled, sparking a three-run rally. There’s a scene in Ball Four where the Pilots are playing the Tigers the next year and the former’s Don Mincher, a lefty hitter, singles off a righty with a lefty ready in the bullpen. Mincher’s fellow first baseman, Norm Cash, says to him: “Crissakes, Mayo Smith has got to be the dumbest manager in baseball.” If only Cash were miked up when Smith let Lolich bat.)
Roger Angell said in his New Yorker essay that Bumgarner is the best Series pitcher of all time, and he should know. As Angell wrote, he’s seen almost all of them (Angell acknowledged he missed Christy Mathewson, but not by much. Mathewson died in 1925, little more than five years after Angell was born). The New York Times’ Upshot created a formula to rank Series pitchers, called it the Matty Score and ranked Bumgarner the third-best Series pitcher ever after Game 7, behind only Mathewson and Koufax. The Times said it may rename it the “Maddy Scorre” if Bumgarner ever reaches No. 1. (No. 12 is Jack Billingham, a nondescript sinkerballer for the 72-75-76 Reds, whose 3.83 career ERA was 3.47 higher than his 0.36 career Series ERA. Billingham is a distant cousin of Mathewson).
The Times’ David Leonhardt: “We realize that many Giants fans will argue Bumgarner is the greatest World Series pitcher ever. But we’d urge them not to fall victim to what social scientists call recency bias.”
Clayton Kershaw concurs, for the sake of his Cy Young. It might seem strange that Bumgarner ranks higher in the postseason, and pitches better, than he did in the regular season. Three NL starters (Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright and Julio Teheran) pitched more innings this year than Bumgarner; two won more games, all had better ERAs and two had higher WARs. The third (Teheran) had an equal one. And Kershaw was better than all.
But Napoleon said ability was nothing without opportunity, and Bumgarner had both. The Royals were a favorable opponent: stocked with left-handed hitters (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon), last in the majors in home runs in the regular season (Bumgarner threw 14 of his 21 on the road) and whose best right-handed hitters (Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez) chased his high fastball with the conviction of a dog chasing a squirrel. They kept swinging and missing, sure they would get the next one.
Bumgarner threw six pitches to Perez for the last out of the game, and only the last one may have been a strike. Perez swung at two and missed, fouled one and popped up one. Bumgarner’s game plan for Perez was to show him three pitches: high, higher and highest, because about the only player who can hit those was playing third base behind him.
It didn’t help Perez that on his first at-bat Tim Hudson threw a fastball off his knee, which was Hudson’s greatest contribution to the Giants’ triumph. Bumgarner did the rest.