Yes, Madison Bumgarner was a slugger in high school. They're all sluggers in high school though, right? OK, true, Bumgarner was particularly so -- he first captured the attention of Pat Portugal, the scout who would sign him, with a towering home run over the scoreboard at his high school
Yes, Madison Bumgarner was a slugger in high school. They're all sluggers in high school though, right? OK, true, Bumgarner was particularly so -- he first captured the attention of Pat Portugal, the scout who would sign him, with a towering home run over the scoreboard at his high school in North Carolina -- but, really, how many times have you heard that story about the slugging pitcher?
Every superb pitcher, it seems, bashes a few home runs in Little League, in high school, even in college. Pitchers, after all, tend to be the team's best athlete. If they're good enough, throw hard enough, show enough pitching potential, they get drafted. And then they find out what all pitchers find out: Those glorious days of pitching brilliantly and mashing home runs are pretty much over.
This should be obvious. You often hear people ask, "Why can't pitchers hit?" But that's ridiculous, a bit like asking, "Why can't NFL defensive backs play quarterback?" Hitting a baseball is one of the toughest things in sports. Incredibly talented young hitters who practice nonstop fall short of the Major Leagues more often than not. The fact that any Major Leaguer who has dedicated his life to pitching can even put a bat on a big league slider is something of a minor miracle.
Pitching and hitting are two entirely different skills, and they each require singular dedication and focus.
"I never worked at it," the Dodgers' Brandon McCarthy says when I ask how good a hitter he was growing up. "Good swing. Good eye. And I somehow struggled to hit the ball."
Pitching takes too much out of you.
• Giants drop opener, 6-5
When Bumgarner came to the big leagues, he couldn't hit. His first four-plus seasons in the big leagues, he batted .138 and slugged .192. In 2013, Bumgarner posted a .107 average without an extra-base hit in 69 plate appearances. Nobody was surprised by that. Nobody wondered, "Hey, he crushed the ball in high school, where is the power?" That's the natural course of a pitcher's career.
The next year, though, Bumgarner put together one of the best offensive years for a pitcher since the designated hitter was launched in the American League in 1973. He hit .258, slugged .470 and slammed as many home runs (four) as Joe Panik and Angel Pagan combined.
Next year, Bumgarner went deep five times, again outhomering Pagan.
Last year, Bumgarner fell off slightly. Still he became the only pitcher in the DH era to hit at least three homers for three consecutive seasons.
And now -- as we all saw on Sunday -- it's beginning to feel right to Bumgarner. It's still not entirely clear what we saw in that Giants-D-backs game because we have never seen it before, and the fact that San Francisco lost, 6-5, was somewhat secondary to the feat we witnessed. Bumgarner became the first pitcher to hit two home runs on Opening Day since … well, ever. Since 1973, only 12 other pitchers have gone deep twice in any game.
The last Giants player to hit two home runs on Opening Day? Barry Bonds.
So yes, it's crazy. But the fact Bumgarner hit two home runs, as unusual an achievement as that is, is almost beside the point. It was the sheer fury of those two blasts that boggled the mind. The first came in the fifth inning when Bumgarner faced Zack Greinke, one of the Majors' best pitchers in the past decade. Greinke fell behind 1-2, then decided to challenge Bumgarner up in the zone with a 92-mph fastball. That was a mistake.
Bumgarner hit that ball so hard that the television seemed to shake.
With Statcast™, we now have precise ways of telling just how hard he hit that ball -- it was 112.5 mph. That is the hardest ball a pitcher has hit in the Statcast™ Era. Admittedly, the Statcast™ Era is pretty short (circa 2015), but it's hard to imagine any pitcher connecting with a baseball that hard. Maybe Babe Ruth. It was like a perfectly timed punch, one that knocks out the mouthpiece and makes everyone in the crowd shout "OH!" at the same time.
Pitchers don't hit baseballs that hard. They just don't. When you hear that sound, see that trajectory, you think about Jose Pujols, about Jose Cabrera, about Michael Trout. With that home run, Bumgarner became just the second pitcher to hit a home run with an exit velocity higher than 110 mph. The first was … Bumgarner last year. Third place on that list was … also Bumgarner.
"He definitely has a lot of pop," McCarthy says. "That's for sure."
Bumgarner came up again in the seventh, and it was a very different situation in the game. He had been cruising when he took Greinke deep, tossing a perfect game through the first five innings. Then Bumgarner got rocked a bit in the sixth, and it wasn't even certain that he would get to hit again. But he did, and this time he faced lefty Andrew Chafin.
What was striking about this one was how predictable it was. It's ridiculous to predict that a pitcher, even a beast like Bumgarner, will homer. But when Chafin fell behind 2-0, it seemed like everyone knew exactly what was coming next.
Chafin would be forced to come in with a fastball (which he did).
The fastball would catch too much of the plate (if Chafin was throwing darts, this would have been a bull's-eye).
Bumgarner's eyes would light up, and he would swing the bat with all the rage he had bottled up from the last frustrating inning (man, did he swing hard).
This home run was not quite as awe-inspiring as the first. But it was impressive enough. Left fielder Yasmany Tomas did not move an inch as it sailed over his head. Statcast™ measured the exit velocity on this one at 112.1 mph -- the second hardest-hit ball by a pitcher in the era.
Bumgarner now has the four top exit velocities for pitchers.
By the way: Only one other player has knocked two home runs in a game with each exiting out at 112 mph. I don't need to tell you that it's Giancarlo Stanton (who has done it twice). Who else? This is the company that Bumgarner keeps these days as a hitter.
"In the dugout, we were just shaking our heads, because it's not supposed to be that easy," Giants catcher Buster Posey said.
What does it all mean? That's not easy to sum up. Bumgarner is an amazing hitter for a pitcher, but that's about how far it goes, at least so far. The talk of him being good enough to hit every day is premature and maybe silly. Bumgarner is, after all, a .183 career hitter with a 183-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio. There are plenty of guys in the Minor Leagues who can run into a ball now and again.
No question, though, there has always been something a little bit larger than life about Madison Bumgarner. How far can he take this hitting thing? Who knows? But you get the feeling that he will blow our minds again, and soon.
Joe Posnanski is a best-selling author, an Emmy Award-winning writer and has been awarded National Sportswriter of the Year.