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Madison Bumgarner’s Bum Start

Check out this line from Madison Bumgarner’s start last night: 0.1 IP, 9 hits, 8 earned runs, 1 strikeout.

Holy implosions, Batman! Not only did this start cause countless fantasy owners to collapse in grief, it also solidified Bumgarner a spot in the record book; as multiple people have pointed out, Bumgarner became the first starter in the live-ball era to allow nine hits while only recording one out. And here I was, thinking that Vin Mazzaro had already used up this year’s allotment of “historically bad ineffectiveness.”

So in light of this performance, here’s the question I want to tackle: why was Bumgarner so bad last night? Overall, he’s been a great pitcher so far this year — while his ERA is a tad high now (4.00), his 2.90 FIP and 3.47 xFIP both speak to his excellent peripherals. His strikeout rate is slightly up this season and his K/BB ratio is only slightly lower, and he’s managed to generate more swinging strikes while limiting his homeruns allowed. The biggest reason that his ERA is so inflated this season appears to be his .333 BABIP — hitters are simply getting more hits off him, as we saw in dramatic fashion last night.

As Dave Cameron pointed out in a very timely post on BABIP yesterday, there are three main variables that go into influencing a pitcher’s BABIP: good or bad defense, luck, and pitching. While saberists have historically focused on “luck” as the main reason for variations in BABIP, the truth is that all three of these variables are constantly interacting with one another — and not only that, but bad pitching is to blame more than many of us normally admit.

Want a prime example of these interacting factors? Let’s take a play-by-play look at Bumgarner’s start yesterday.

Batter One: In a 1-1 count, Bumgarner leaves a fastball over the plate and Ben Revere rips a hard groundball to short. Miguel “Lead Glove” Tejada can’t come up with the play, and it scoots off his glove for a single. Chalk this one up to poor pitch location and poor defense.

Batter Two: Bumgarner gets ahead 0-2, but then throws a slider that gets too much of the plate. The pitch is ripped down the third base line, a hard grounder that gets by a diving Sandoval. Poor pitch location again, but more defensively-gifted third basemen might have stopped that.

Batter Three: This is just a nice piece of hitting. Bumgarner throws a tough 1-2 curveball to Joe Mauer, but he turns it into a single up the middle. Chalk that one up as “thems the breaks.”

Batter Four: Stop me if this sounds familiar: Bumgarner is ahead 0-2, but then leaves a fastball over the plate and it’s turned into a hard hit grounder past third. I think I’m spotting a theme here.

Batter Five: The Twins are smelling blood, and Delmon Young just turns on the first pitch he gets — a fastball over the middle — and turns it into a single up the middle. At this point, I’m about ready to yell at my computer, “STOP THROWING SO MANY STRIKES!”

I won’t go on any further, as this is already getting incredibly repetitive and the rest of the inning was more of the same; Bumgarner was pounding the zone hard and getting ahead of hitters, but he was then leaving way too many pitches over the plate. There was some bad defense and a couple tough breaks in that inning too, but almost all of the hits against him could be pinned on him throwing way too many easy-to-hit pitches. Especially when you’re ahead in the count and you know that batters are going to be protecting the zone, you simply can’t throw so many pitches down the middle.

I haven’t watched many of Bumgarner’s starts so I can’t speak on if this has been a recurring problem for him, but it’s at least possible that this “pound-the-zone” approach is what’s causing his BABIP to be so high this season. It was certainly the problem last night, and it’s something I’m sure his pitching coach will point out before his next start and they’ll work to correct.

Regression is normally talked about as though it’s some passive process — BABIP rates return to average because, well, just because! — but in almost all cases, it’s not. Bumgarner will likely be better his next time out and allow fewer hits, but not through some magical, mysterious means: it’ll be because he’s made adjustments and stopped throwing so many pitches over the plate. He’s normally a very good pitcher — and I’m sure he’ll continue to be one in the future — but last night he was simply too hittable.