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.