Madison Bumgarner Not Outstanding, Yet Outstanding

For a while, there was every reason to believe the Giants would look forward to having Madison Bumgarner start in the playoffs. Bumgarner was a very good starting pitcher, and teams like to have very good starting pitchers start for them come playoff time. Then Bumgarner started to wear down, or — if you don’t like that explanation — Bumgarner just started pitching a lot worse. His repertoire got worse, his results got worse, and there was a question of whether Bumgarner would start at all in the World Series. He was ultimately given the start in Game 2, but nobody really knew what to expect. The Giants had talked about a promising mechanical tweak, but Bumgarner was still coming off some lousy performances at the wrong times.

So, naturally, Bumgarner was terrific Thursday night. His box-score results, at least, were terrific, and though it was thanks to an impressive relay that Bumgarner managed to keep the Tigers completely off the board, even a slightly worse performance might’ve meant a Giants loss. Instead, in large part thanks to Bumgarner, the Giants hold a commanding series lead as everybody transitions to Michigan. Bruce Bochy, they say, can’t do any wrong right now. Everything he touches turns to figurative, strategic gold.

Bumgarner was removed after seven innings, having allowed two hits and zero runs, barely. He needed just 86 pitches to generate eight strikeouts and 13 swinging strikes, and statistically it was his best start since embarrassing the Dodgers on August 20. We care a lot about numbers, here, and Bumgarner’s numbers were fantastic. His 79 Game Score was his third-highest of 2012, and while Game Score is littered with issues as an evaluation metric it conveys the right general idea. By the numbers, Madison Bumgarner pitched like a normal, effective Madison Bumgarner. Even better than that, actually.

But does this mean that Madison Bumgarner is fixed? Was Bumgarner, in Game 2, back to being himself? Obviously, there are reasons to believe yes. There are also compelling reasons to believe no, and that this could’ve been Mediocre Bumgarner just having a hell of a game, with some help from the hitters.

Bumgarner has started 35 times this year between the regular season and the playoffs, and things seemed to go awry in start number 26, which was the start after the brilliant Dodgers game in which Bumgarner threw a season-high 123 pitches. One figures not everything has had to do with Bumgarner’s average fastball velocity, but one figures Bumgarner’s average fastball velocity might be an indicator. Let’s examine:

Starts 1-25: 91.0 mph average fastball
Starts 26-34: 90.0 mph average fastball
Start 35: 89.6 mph average fastball

The fastest pitch Bumgarner threw Thursday night was clocked at 90.7 miles per hour out of the hand. That’s slower than his average fastball for the season’s first five months. Bumgarner’s velocity clearly didn’t rebound to any meaningful extent; it clearly didn’t rebound at all.

So that’s one thing. Additionally, when Bumgarner is going good, he frequently pounds right-handed batters inside with his fastball. He pounds them inside with his slider, too, making for an effective pitch mix, and that’s without even mentioning his changeup and curve. When Bumgarner’s season started going south, it was correlated to a tendency to miss with the fastball more up or more away. People might refer to this as Bumgarner “flying open” and though there weren’t meaningful changes in the PITCHf/x pitch-movement data, the locations were doing Bumgarner no favors, and Bumgarner needs his location to be sharp.

Thursday night, Bumgarner was frequently missing up or away. Here are .gifs of swinging strikes, but pay attention to the catcher’s glove, and pay attention to where the pitches wound up. As Justin Verlander showed us on Wednesday, what we think is the target isn’t always the target, but it’s usually the target, so. Images.

No pitcher ever reliably throws to his specific spot every time, so maybe this analysis isn’t being fair to Bumgarner. He was, after all, succeeding, if not downright thriving. But, oh, I almost forgot to include these other two .gifs. These aren’t fastballs and these aren’t pitches to righties, but these are missed locations to a dangerous hitter that Bumgarner survived.

Both of those were sliders over the middle of the plate to Prince Fielder. One was a first pitch, and one was in a 1-and-0 count. One of them, Fielder barely missed; one of them, Fielder completely missed.

It’s always impossible to separate pitching from hitting. Hopelessly impossible, at least over a small sample like seven innings in one game. We know that sometimes hitters hit good pitches and sometimes they hit bad ones. We know that sometimes hitters miss good pitches and sometimes they miss bad ones. We can’t really identify a good pitch or a bad pitch on the fly, though, not reliably, because there’s always a counter argument. If a hitter misses what seems like a mistake, well, maybe there was deception in the pitcher’s motion, or maybe it was the result of good sequencing. If a hitter hits a good pitch, maybe the pitcher telegraphed what he was throwing, or maybe the movement was too flat. We can’t say for sure whether Madison Bumgarner was excellent on Thursday, whether the Tigers were just bad, or something in between. Bumgarner’s stuff looked unspectacular, yet his statistical results were spectacular, and we don’t know how much of that to credit to him. Some. Not none, or all. One recalls that Barry Zito shut down the Tigers’ lineup the night before.

Maybe there’s something to the fact that, on Thursday, Bumgarner had greater differentiation between his fastballs and sliders. During his slump, his fastball velocity dropped, but his slider velocity stayed the same. Thursday, his fastball velocity was down and his slider velocity was also down by a similar amount. That could be a thing, or nothing. I can’t ignore his struggles with location, though, and just ten of 23 batters saw first-pitch strikes. Something just didn’t seem quite right, even though Bumgarner wound up with seven innings of shutout baseball in the World Series.

Here’s the one thing we can say for sure: even if Bumgarner isn’t fixed — and I don’t think that he is — he’s still capable of a performance like this one. Worse Madison Bumgarner doesn’t necessarily always have to be Ineffective Madison Bumgarner, because he’s still mostly Madison Bumgarner, and because a big part of pitching is the hitting. What’s important right now isn’t whether Bumgarner was on top of his game in Game 2. What’s important is that, no matter the means, the Giants finished on top of the Tigers. Maybe that was mostly the fault of the Tigers, but there are only two teams in this, and the Tigers are one of them. Losing is losing.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

32 Responses to “Madison Bumgarner Not Outstanding, Yet Outstanding”

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  1. Eric says:

    Great stuff as usual, Jeff. I’m still laughing from reading that comp of Ichiro to a deer in the woods. Funniest thing I read all week…

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  2. DrBGiantsfan says:

    I’ve watched almost all of Bumgarner’s starts this year. I don’t disagree with this analysis. I would add a couple of comments:

    1. I thought the movement on his slider was more pronounced than in his recent bad starts. 2. I thought his location got better as the game went along.

    I”ll just add that Bumgarner can be one ornery dude. I’d be willing to bet he hit Prince Fielder on purpose for standing too close to the plate and leaning over it.

    One time when he was in the minors he hit a batter. His manager thought it looked suspiciously like he did it on purpose. When he asked Bumgarner if it was a purpose pitch, the reply was yes. When the manager asked why, Bumgarner replied, “because he swung too hard.” LOL!

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    • channelclemente says:

      There was a time Bumgarner had a 94-96 MPH fb and scared people, a lot. He’s adopted this ‘nice guy’ demeanor off the mound as a Giant’s marketing meme, dropped his arm angle, and added the cut FB, and took about 3-5 mph off his typical FB. Everybody has heard the apocryphal stories of him getting pitched out of minor league games, but sufficient to say, on the mound he’s not a typical Giants cuddly animal. I think, he is tired from a long season, but the author is right, he’s not ‘back’. He’s up in the zone and it remains to be seen whether he will be right if we get to another turn by him in the rotation.

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    • Travis L says:

      “Hell yes I assaulted an opponent with a fist sized hard object thrown near the maximum that a human can! Why? I’ll tell ya why — he tried to hard against me!”

      I know they are there in order to compete, but can we please stop pretending like it’s cool?

      Is there a difference between trying to hit a batter and Matt Holliday taking out a 2b on a double play? Should we accept Ty Cobb’s sharpened, flying spikes against players he didn’t like?

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Did I say it was cool? Dude, I just told the story the way I read it. I also made a simple statement that in my opinion it looked like Bumgarner threw at Fielder on purpose. I believe I prefaced that by saying he is an “ornery” dude. If you think that’s cool, you are entitled to your opinion, but I made no such statement. I just reported a story and stated an observation.

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      • kurt says:

        Hey buddy, you wrote “LOL!” after talking about Bumgarner throwing at a batter and now you don’t want to own your statements? Come on man, I’m not saying that him throwing at a guy because he swung too hard, isn’t funny, but to say you don’t think it was cool to throw at someone, while you write “LOL!” right after you tell the story of a guy throwing a beanball is a little hypocritical.

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      • kurt says:

        Travis, seriously, life is too short to get bent out of shape over someone else telling a story. There’s no need to try and police everyone because you have control issues. Let people write what they want as long as it’s not vulgar, abusive, and is at least topic related. Honestly, throwing at a grown man weighing close to 200lbs. or more, is not the same thing as someone punching a baby and that’s about how you are making it out to be like. The level of hyperbole around here is exhaustive to say the least.

        A side note, my grandfather was a top catching prospect and lost his baseball career in the 40s because some dude spiked him in the knee and cut his tendons on a doubleplay at 2nd base. He never cried about losing his career after reaching AAA. He said it was just part of the game and that throwing at batters, sliding hard, etc. is part of what makes baseball special, only in baseball is it not only allowed, but also encouraged to defend yourself and your teammates. Selig and his cronies be damned. Ask a player or coach and they’ll all tell you, no one is above the law when they disrespect the game, the other team/players, or intentional target (an)other guy(s) from the other club.

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      • kurt says:

        The LOL! comment was for DrBGiantsFan…

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    • davisnc says:

      If Bumgarner was willing to intentionally put the leadoff man on base in a scoreless game that has historically meant about a 30-percent swing in his team’s chances of winning the World Series, ornery is definitely not the first word I’d use to describe it.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        I would define “ornery” as someone who does what he/she wants to do and/or what others don’t want them to do sometimes to their own detriment. Yeah, I’d say MadBum is an ornery dude if my suspicions about that pitch to Fielder’s shoulder are true.

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  3. Mike says:

    This could be nothing, but isn’t a big scouting note on Bumgarner that he has a very deceptive delivery?

    Could it be that the Tigers, who probably did not have a lot of experience against him, were fooled by his delivery; where the Reds and the Cardinals were not?

    Obviously it is impossible to say for certain, but it seems like a possibility.

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  4. ElJimador says:

    In the comments to various articles on ESPN there are a lot of Giants fans giving Curt Schilling grief for calling Bumgarner’s stuff last night “mediocre at best”. But as a Giants fan who has seen all of Bumgarner’s starts I have to agree. His velocity clearly was not good and his slider wasn’t as sharp as it usually is either. Just watch the highlights of the start vs. the Dodgers when he out-dueled Kershaw and compare it to the highlights from last night. The drop off in stuff is very noticeable. That said, I thought he located very well last night overall and did a good job getting the Tigers to chase. So definitely some poor hitting by the Tigers and a little luck involved too, but it wasn’t only that. Bumgarner pitched well too, even without his good stuff.

    BTW, I give Bochy a lot of the credit for this. Bumgarner after his loss to the Cardinals sounded like a guy whose confidence was shot (talking about his mechanics being off, not the usual life on his pitches, etc.) But Bochy at the same time was insisting that his stuff was still good enough to be effective and he just needed to execute better. In fact I suspect there really wasn’t much of a mechanical adjustment that even happened since then (which would explain why neither f them wanted to go into any detail to describe it after the game yesterday). I think Bochy just challenged him to buck up and execute better with the stuff he’s got right now and Bumgarner did. It doesn’t mean that he’s “fixed” and the results may end up a lot different if he has to go out and pitch a game 6. But it was good enough last night.

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  5. Graham says:

    Nice work, Jeff. I don’t disagree with your overall premise that last night was not a full ‘return to form’ for MadBum.

    Having said that, I was really surprised how done on his performance you and Dave were doing the live blog last night. SSS caveats notwithstanding, I don’t think separating pitching from hitting is quite as ambiguous as you claim in this article. The whole “was it Bumgarner being good, or the Tigers being bad” thing makes very little sense to me. One pitcher faced eight major league hitters — the likelihood that it was the pitcher being good is far greater than the likelihood that each of those eight batters was individually, simultaneously bad.

    I thought he looked all right. Got away with a few (who doesn’t?), but judging by the swings the Tigers were putting up, he was hiding the ball well and getting late movement (likely more important than big movement) on his cutter. (One final note — I find it more useful to think of the pitch you call a slider as a cutter instead. In reality, the pitch is kind of a weird hybrid of the two; but given his propensity for breaking bats when he’s really on, I think the pitch exhibits much greater lateral effectiveness and less longitudinal effectiveness than the typical slider.)

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  6. Jeff says:

    Just wanted to say that I am thoroughly enjoying a series that is filled with weird stuff, randomness, outliers, and fangraphs coverage of it.

    For instance… statements like “It’s always impossible to separate pitching from hitting [over the course of 7 innings]” is fun to read, and makes me, wait… er, what?

    If you are going to cover the playoffs, have you considered titling every article “Small Sample Size results in…”? Then we can attribute all metrics of performance to variance! Yay!

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  7. KO says:

    I have to admit I don’t think I’ve ever watched Bumgarner pitch before, but does he always not bend his back? He finishes the pitch standing up. Every other major league pitcher finishes with their torso parallel to the ground and their back leg high in the air. I’m an amateur pitcher, and I’ve always thought the reason I throw 80 rather than 90 is because I throw how Bumgarner was throwing. And yet there he was throwing 90 (barely), and he doesn’t really extend and follow through.

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  8. celtic1888 says:

    Al Leiter had the best comments last night regarding Bumgarner saying it’s a cut fastball more than a slider. Leiter made a good living off of the same type of pitch.

    I’m always suspicious hearing about how they ‘fixed a mechanical flaw’ especially in the post season (see Valverde). The Giants coaching staff have done some wonder with Bumgarner. He was completely broken in the NLDS/NLCS. He couldn’t even hold a runner on.

    Santiago Casilla had a similar issue after blowing a few saves in July. He looked finished and was the epitome of a gasoline can. The Giants said it was a blister issue. They shut him down for 2 weeks and he jumps right back to form although he did lose the closer position.

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  9. Spencer says:

    I can’t compare it to every start 26-34, but he was definitely more in command than in starts 33 and 34, the two playoff starts.

    He was WAY out of whack in the two postseason games. The three gifs above were what virtually every single pitch looked like as opposed to three misses out of 86 pitches. He looked like he was throwing a bowling ball the way his arm was dragging around. He was also clearly lost out on the mound and with zero confidence. The Cards were able to run at will because he wasn’t even thinking about the game at hand.

    My guess is that the rest, and the slight mechanical tweak let him get back to commanding his pitches. Even if it didn’t “fix” him completely to the pitcher he was most of the year.

    So that, a couple defensive breaks, and a Tigers lineup that let him get away with the mistakes he did make.

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  10. Colin says:

    As I said in the chat during the game. That might have been one of the worst “amazing” playoff starts I’ve ever seen.

    His stuff was flat, slow, very hittable but the Tigers have to, you know, actually hit it for him not to look like a super star. He made a ton of mistakes and was basically not punished for any of them. Good for him that he got the results, but the method wasn’t there.

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  11. Colin says:

    Extreme trolling at its finest.

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  12. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Just like you can’t separate hitting from pitching, you cannot separate pitching from defense. The Giants have a Team UZR of +8.6 while the Tigers are at -28.1. As long as Giants pitchers can keep the ball in the park, and they are historically pretty good at that, they will continue to benefit from the Giants + defense. So yeah, it’s not all luck.

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  13. John Stamos says:

    I think you’ve mistaken this chat box as a radio call-in.

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  14. Seriously says:

    You just analyzed a player who might not make another appearence in a baseball game for more than four months.

    This article will be very topical next march so you could always republish it then.

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  15. PackBob says:

    Good pitching always beats good hitting.

    Good hitting always beats good pitching.

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  16. Andy says:

    Could this comment simply be deleted, please? The language is extremely offensive.

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  17. Peter says:

    Sullivan writes, “Maybe there‚Äôs something to the fact that, on Thursday, Bumgarner had greater differentiation between his fastballs and sliders”.

    Add a “tilt” differential, and that’s the rabbit hole you need to follow, Sullivan.

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