Madison Kyle Bumgarner plays pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. At 52-43, the Giants have the sixth-best record in baseball. Madison the pitcher has +0.8 WAR as a hitter. That means a pitcher has been the seventh-most valuable hitter on a playoff-caliber team. Most major league pitchers make very poor major league hitters. This hasn’t applied to pretty much any of the San Francisco Giants starters, but especially to Madison Kyle Bumgarner.
Bumgarner’s slash line through the first half of the 2014 season is .275/.302/.550. That gives him matching wRC+ and OPS+ totals of 140. Thanks to the great Dan Szymborski, I can tell you that his ZiPS end-of-season-projection includes a 107 OPS+. That is to say, even if he goes back to hitting like a pitcher in the second half, it is more likely than not that Madison Bumgarner will finish the season with above-league average hitting numbers. There are many actual major league hitters that won’t finish the season with above-league average hitting numbers.
A full season of 30+ starts will generally yield at least 60 plate appearances for a National League pitcher. If Bumgarner does indeed finish the season with an OPS+ north of 100, it will be just the 16th full season from the last 30 years of a pitcher posting an above-league average OPS. One of those seasons was from Micah Owings, who used to be a pitcher and is now a hitter. Another one was from Brooks Kieschnick, who was a pitcher and a hitter and a left fielder all at the same time. Three of them were from Mike Hampton. So, really, Bumgarner would be just the 12th different true pitcher to do it in the last 30 years.
Another thing: Bumgarner has hit two grand slams this year. The only other members of that club are Nelson Cruz, Brandon Moss, Chris Carter, Ike Davis and Devin Mesoraco. The club of pitchers hitting two grand slams in one season is an even smaller club. That club consists of Madison Bumgarner and Tony Cloninger. Clonginger started the club in 1966. He hit them both in the same game.
You could probably argue that either of the grand slams are Bumgarner’s most impressive at-bat of the first half. They did make history, after all. But those grand slams both came on the first pitch. Pitchers, almost universally, get thrown fastballs for strikes on the first pitch. Bumgarner got two fastballs, both right down the middle. There are a lot of guys who can hit fastballs down the middle out of a stadium if they know it’s coming. Bumgarner’s both came in huge spots, yes, but I’d like to see more to be truly impressed by a pitcher at the plate. I want to see him really piece together a quality at-bat. I want to see him make the opposing pitcher work. I want to see him look like a professional hitter. I want to not be able to tell the difference.
Setting: June 10, San Francisco, bottom of the third inning, one out, nobody on, facing Doug Fister:
Let’s say somebody dug a big ol’ hole, like, 10 years ago. Once they stopped digging, they hopped inside and were able to make do for a decade, totally losing track of what was happening in the MLB or really anywhere at all outside of the hole. I don’t know why they shunned themselves to holedom. Maybe it was an oddly specific punishment or maybe they’re just a lunatic. But let’s say after 10 years of the hole, this was the first pitch of the first at-bat they saw. If hole-man had to guess what position Madison Bumgarner played, based on this pitch and this pitch alone, I can say with supreme confidence the hole-man would not guess pitcher. Because first, hole-man would likely be disoriented and wouldn’t want to play your stupid game. But also, that just does not look like a pitcher’s swing. He turned on a major league fastball and barreled it. Also also, he swung at the first pitch. On average, pitchers swing at the first pitch just 29% of the time. Bumgarner swings at the first pitch 45% of the time. The only pitchers that swing at the first pitch more often than Madison Bumgarner are Jeff Samardzija and Tyson Ross.
Down 0-1 in the count, Bumgarner swings away again, and again he fouls it off. Bumgarner has hit the third-most foul balls of any pitcher in baseball this season. Bumgarner is now down 0-2 in the count. Which isn’t uncommon for a pitcher. But the way he’s gotten there is uncommon. Usually a pitcher that’s down 0-2 just took two fastballs right down the middle or failed at bunting. Bumgarner is up there taking hacks against a good pitcher in Doug Fister.
Obviously, this is an easy take, because the ball almost went to the backstop after slipping out of Fister’s hand. But this pitch still says something. Pitchers see more strikes in 0-2 counts than any other batter, because the pitcher on the mound just isn’t that worried about any real damage being done. Fister wasn’t trying to nearly throw a wild pitch, of course, but it sure doesn’t look like he was trying to throw a strike, either. Rather than attack Bumgarner like he probably would to most pitchers, Fister didn’t look like he wanted to give him anything to hit. Three pitches in and still no real way for hole-man to discern that this is a pitcher at the plate.
This is a really impressive take by Bumgarner. Fister pretty much throws a perfect two-strike fastball, elevated on the outside corner, and Bumgarner is able to lay off. When you dig into some plate discipline numbers for pitchers, you find a lot of wacky things. You find guys that swing way more often than actual hitters. You find guys that barely swing at all. You find guys have a higher O-Swing% than Z-Swing%. You find plate discipline numbers that don’t look anything like normal plate discipline numbers, because most pitchers don’t really have plate discipline.
Look at Madison Bumgarner’s plate discipline numbers and you can’t really tell the difference. Madison Bumgarner swings at pitches outside the strike zone 30% of the time. League average is 30%. Madison Bumgarner swings at pitches inside of the strike zone 67% of the time. League average is 63%. Madison Bumgarner’s approach resembles that of an MLB hitter. Based on that fact, or that 1-2 take, our hole-man is still left in the dark.
This is the first of Bumgarner’s three swings that looks a little pitcher-like, but there’s something else to this. Neither of Bumgarner’s first two swings came with two strikes. This one did. Most hitters change their approach with two strikes, going into “protect mode,” where they try to foul off close pitches until they get one they like. Most pitchers have but one swing: the try-to-make-contact-at-all-costs swing. Bumgarner came up to the plate trying to do damage, and now he’s spoiling pitches with two strikes. Bumgarner is adjusting at the plate, mid-at-bat. Pitchers don’t really do that. Hitters do. Hole-man is probably guessing Bumgarner plays third base right now.
A breaking ball! The first six pitches Fister threw were fastballs, which might be the only indication to hole-man that Bumgarner could be a pitcher. Bumgarner had made contact on all three fastballs at which he offered, so on a 2-2 count, Fister tries to flip a slider past him. Bumgarner wisely lays off, working the count full after getting down 0-2.
Finally, on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Fister has to groove a 3-2 fastball to Bumgarner and he turns on it, roping a single into left field. Professional at-bat concluded. No obvious clues to hole-man that Bumgarner is a pitcher and not an actual hitter.
Fister came back with a fastball after trying to get Bumgarner to chase a slider. Maybe he should have stuck with the breaking stuff. Four of Bumgarner’s five extra base hits, including all three of his home runs, have come against fastballs this season. That makes perfect sense, as pitchers just get pounded with fastballs. But here’s something interesting to consider:
By god, pitchers are actually adjusting to Madison Bumgarner at the plate! At the beginning of the season, Bumgarner was seeing fastballs 80% of the time. Not uncommon for a pitcher. Now, Bumgarner sees fastballs just a little more than half the time.
Most of the time, a pitcher at the plate is essentially a free out for the opposing team. The pitcher on the mound can just throw a couple of fastballs, take a little off and get an easy out, not having to worry about much until the next batter. Bumgarner, on the other hand, is working full counts, making guys adjust and hitting grand slams. There’s something to be said about making an opposing pitcher actually work through a spot in the order he usually doesn’t have to worry about. Most pitchers have to worry about eight batters when pitching in a National League park. When Madison Kyle Bumgarner is in the lineup, they’ve had to worry about nine.
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